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Eighteenth-Century Studies

Ramesh Mallipeddi, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

Journal Details

The editors invite contributions on all aspects of the eighteenth century. Essays employing interdisciplinary perspectives or addressing contemporary theoretical and cultural concerns relating to the eighteenth century are especially encouraged. Articles which are selected for publication are those which make a significant and original contribution to their field. 

Article submissions are first screened for their appropriateness for the journal. Articles which are considered for publication are sent to two reviewers: one reviewer, generally drawn from the author’s home discipline, serves as a specialist in the subject matter at hand while the other, generally drawn from a second discipline, approaches the article from a broader thematic perspective. Based on these initial reviewers’ reports, the article is either rejected, returned for revisions, or passed on to the editorial board for another level of review.  Once in the hands of the editorial board, each article is read by at least one additional reviewer. These editorial board reviewers make publishing recommendations to the editor, who makes the final decision regarding publication.

Manuscripts should not exceed 9,000 words, including notes. Style must conform to The Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition, with footnotes.  Please consult our style guide carefully prior to submission, as failure to conform with the guidelines may result in the editorial office returning your submission.  Our style guide can be found here .  Quotations from foreign texts should appear in the body of the essay followed by translations. Please supply an abstract of 100 or fewer words with your paper. Illustrations are accepted if pertinent to the essay (authors must secure glossy prints or digital files and reproduction rights if the essay is accepted).  It is the journal's policy to require assignment of copyright from all authors.  Authors must obtain written permission for quoting unpublished or published material in excess of fair use.

Electronic submission is strongly encouraged and will aid in a speedy review process. Submissions may be sent to:  [email protected]   

Alternatively, hard copies of article submissions may be mailed to: The Editors Eighteenth-Century Studies Department of English Language and Literatures #397–1873 East Mall (Buchanan Tower) 302 The University of British Columbia Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z1

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Kathleen Lubey Reviews Editor, Eighteenth-Century Studies St. John Hall, B15 St. John’s University 8000 Utopia Parkway Queens, NY 11439

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Peer Review Policy

Eighteenth-Century Studies  publishes original research on all aspects of thought and culture in the long eighteenth century from across the humanities and social sciences. The editor invites submissions that will make a significant contribution to their field while simultaneously speaking to the journal's interdisciplinary readership. Upon submission, articles are screened by the editor and managing editor for appropriateness for the journal. Those submissions deemed appropriate then go through a double-blind peer review process in which readers are selected from two different disciplinary backgrounds. Readers are asked to assess the article’s argument, structure, methodology, and contribution to the field, as well as to identify the main audiences for the article. Authors can expect to receive one of three decisions within approximately three months of initial submission: accept, revise and resubmit, or reject.

Authors who submit a revision are instructed to include a list of changes they have made in light of earlier feedback, as the article may be sent back to these initial reviewers. Once an article has received positive reports from readers and/or the editor, it is sent to the editorial board for the final decision. This usually takes approximately one month. Authors should consult with the editor before submitting any pieces that fall outside the scope of a standard research essay.

Ramesh Mallipeddi,  University of British Columbia, Vancouver​

Reviews Editor

Kathleen Lubey,  St. John’s University​

Managing Editor

Oliver Bedard,  University of British Columbia, Vancouver

Editorial Board

Faith E. Beasley,  Dartmouth College  (2025) Benita Blessing,  American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies  (ex officio) Margaret E. Ezell,  Texas A&M University  (2025) Kevis Goodman,  University of California, Berkeley  (2026) Thomas Keymer,  University of Toronto  (2026) Jonathan Lamb,  Vanderbilt University  (2025) Peter C. Mancall,  University of Southern California  (2025)

Advisory Board

Mark Boonshoft,  Virginia Military Institute  (2026) Dwight Codr,  University of Connecticut  (2026) Alison Conway,  University of British Columbia  (2026) Marcie Frank,  Concordia University  (2025) Glenda Goodman,  University of Pennsylvania  (2025) Sarah Tindal Kareem,  University of California, Los Angeles  (2026) Nicholas Hudson,  University of British Columbia  (2025) Scott R. MacKenzie,  University of Mississippi  (2025) Ted McCormick,  Concordia University  (2026) Mary Helen McMurran,  University of Western Ontario  (2026) Tobias Menely,  University of California, Davis  (2026) Matthew O’Hara,  University of California, Santa Cruz  (2025) Liza Oliver,  Wellesley College  (2026) Nicholas Paige,  University of California, Berkeley  (2026) Charlotte Sussman,  Duke University  (2025) Coll Thrush,  University of British Columbia  (2025) Charles Walton,  University of Warwick  (2025) Cheng-hua Wang,  Princeton University  (2025) Masano Yamashita,  University of Colorado Boulder  (2025) Chunjie Zhang,  University of California, Davis  (2025)

Reviews should adhere to a 1200-word length for single-title reviews (2400 words for two-title and 3600 for three-title reviews). In addition to evaluating the commissioned book, reviews must communicate that book’s purpose and contributions. Editorial board may request or require revisions at any stage of the publication process to ensure these criteria are met. The final decision to publish rests with the editorial board.

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Please send book review copies to the contact above. Review copies received by the Johns Hopkins University Press office will be discarded.

Abstracting & Indexing Databases

  • Bibliography of Asian Studies (Online), 1974-1977
  • Arts & Humanities Citation Index
  • Current Contents
  • Web of Science
  • Dietrich's Index Philosophicus
  • IBZ - Internationale Bibliographie der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaftlichen Zeitschriftenliteratur
  • Internationale Bibliographie der Rezensionen Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaftlicher Literatur
  • Academic Search Alumni Edition, 7/1/1993-
  • Academic Search Complete, 7/1/1993-
  • Academic Search Elite, 7/1/1993-
  • Academic Search Premier, 7/1/1993-
  • America: History and Life, 3/1/1972-
  • Art & Architecture Complete, 7/1/1993-
  • Art & Architecture Index, 7/1/1993-
  • Art & Architecture Source, 4/15/1982-
  • Art Abstracts (H.W. Wilson), 4/15/1982-
  • Art Index (H.W. Wilson), 4/15/1982-
  • ATLA Religion Database (American Theological Library Association), 1989-1990, dropped
  • Biography Index: Past and Present (H.W. Wilson), vol.15, 1982-vol.43, no.2, 2010
  • Book Review Digest Plus (H.W. Wilson), Jan.1983-
  • Current Abstracts, 1/1/2000-
  • Gender Studies Database, 2/1/1971-
  • Historical Abstracts (Online), 1/1/1972-
  • Humanities & Social Sciences Index Retrospective: 1907-1984 (H.W. Wilson), 1/1/1974-3/1/1983
  • Humanities Abstracts (H.W. Wilson), 6/1/1983-
  • Humanities Index (Online), 1983/01-
  • Humanities Index Retrospective: 1907-1984 (H.W. Wilson), 1/1/1974-3/1/1983
  • Humanities International Complete, 7/1/1993-
  • Humanities International Index, 7/1/1993-
  • Humanities Source, 1/1/1974-
  • Humanities Source Ultimate, 1/1/1974-
  • MLA International Bibliography (Modern Language Association)
  • OmniFile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson), 6/1/1983-
  • Poetry & Short Story Reference Center, 7/1/1993-
  • RILM Abstracts of Music Literature (Repertoire International de Litterature Musicale)
  • SocINDEX, 6/1/1993-
  • SocINDEX with Full Text, 6/1/1993-
  • TOC Premier (Table of Contents), 1/1/1995-
  • Women's Studies International, 2/1/1971-
  • Scopus, 2002-ongoing, 2000, 1998, 1983-1985, 1979-1980, 1975-1976, 1972, 1969
  • Academic ASAP, 12/1985-
  • Book Review Index Plus
  • Gale Academic OneFile
  • Gale Academic OneFile Select, 09/1989-
  • Gale General OneFile, 01/1989-
  • InfoTrac Custom, 9/1989-
  • ArticleFirst, vol.23, no.3, 1990-vol.44, no.4, 2011
  • Electronic Collections Online, vol.29, no.1, 1995-vol.44, no.4, 2011
  • Periodical Abstracts, v.25, n.1, 1991-v.43, n.3, 2010
  • Personal Alert (E-mail)
  • Art, Design & Architecture Collection, 10/01/1991-
  • Arts & Humanities Database, 10/01/1991-
  • Arts Premium Collection, 10/1/1991-
  • International Bibliography of Art, Selective
  • Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts (Online), Selective
  • Music & Performing Arts Collection, 10/01/1991-
  • Music Periodicals Database, 10/01/1991-
  • Periodicals Index Online
  • Professional ProQuest Central, 10/01/1991-
  • ProQuest 5000, 10/01/1991-
  • ProQuest Central, 10/01/1991-
  • Research Library, 10/01/1991-
  • The Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature (ABELL)

Abstracting & Indexing Sources

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  • Abstracts of English Studies   (Ceased)  (Print)
  • Children's Literature Abstracts   (Ceased)  (Print)
  • Index to Book Reviews in the Humanities   (Ceased)  (Print)
  • MLA Abstracts of Articles in Scholarly Journals   (Ceased)  (Print)
  • Religion Index One: Periodicals   (Ceased)  (Print)
  • Religion Index Two: Multi-Author Works   (Ceased)  (Print)

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Article contents

Print, the press, and the american revolution.

  • Robert G. Parkinson Robert G. Parkinson Binghamton University, SUNY
  • Published online: 03 September 2015

According to David Ramsay, one of the first historians of the American Revolution, “in establishing American independence, the pen and press had merit equal to that of the sword.” Because of the unstable and fragile notions of unity among the thirteen American colonies, print acted as a binding agent that mitigated the chances that the colonies would not support one another when war with Britain broke out in 1775.

Two major types of print dealt with the political process of the American Revolution: pamphlets and newspapers. Pamphlets were one of the most important conveyors of ideas during the imperial crisis. Often written by elites under pseudonyms and published by booksellers, they have long been held by historians as the lifeblood of the American Revolution. There were also three dozen newspaper printers in the American mainland colonies at the start of the Revolution, each producing a four-page issue every week. These weekly papers, or one-sheet broadsides that appeared in American cities even more frequently, were the most important communication avenue to keep colonists informed of events hundreds of miles away. Because of the structure of the newspaper business in the 18th century, the stories that appeared in each paper were “exchanged” from other papers in different cities, creating a uniform effect akin to a modern news wire. The exchange system allowed for the same story to appear across North America, and it provided the Revolutionaries with a method to shore up that fragile sense of unity. It is difficult to imagine American independence—as a popular idea let alone a possible policy decision—without understanding how print worked in colonial America in the mid-18th century.

  • Common Sense
  • freedom of the press
  • Sons of Liberty

According to one of the first historians of the Revolution, “in establishing American independence, the pen and press had merit equal to that of the sword.” 1 Print—whether the trade in books, the number of weekly newspapers, or the mass of pamphlets, broadsides, and other imprints—increased dramatically in the middle of the 18th century, with the general trend of economic prosperity and growing cultural norms about “refinement” and “improvement.” In the 1760s, print became a contested site of imperial reform with the Stamp Act, when Parliament chose texts as the locus of the constitutional debate over the colonies’ place in the empire and their responsibility in sharing tax burdens. The Stamp Act and the colonists’ resistance politicized print—and printers—in new ways. For the remainder of the imperial crisis, print remained at the center of the colonial resistance movement, connecting disparate resistance groups to one another, and providing the most reliable communications network across the Atlantic littoral. Newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides were, indeed, the lifeblood of American resistance. Because of the unstable and fragile notions of unity among the thirteen mainland American colonies, print acted as a binding agent that mitigated the chances that the colonies would not support one another when war with Britain broke out in 1775.

Two major types of print shaped the political processes of the American Revolution: pamphlets and newspapers. Pamphlets became strategic conveyors of ideas during the imperial crisis. Often written by elites under pseudonyms, they have long been held up by historians as agents of change in and of themselves—that texts like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense or John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania , to name two of the most famous, are often seen as actors themselves, driving the resistance movement forward. There were also three dozen newspapers active on the American mainland at the start of the Revolution, each producing a four-page issue once a week. Although these papers earlier in the 18th century had focused on news from European capitals and courts, with the burgeoning imperial crisis they began to feature news from other colonies. These weekly papers were the most important communication avenue that kept colonists informed of events hundreds of miles away. It is difficult to imagine American independence—as a popular idea let alone a potential policy decision—without understanding how print worked in colonial America in the later decades of the 18th century.

As Bernard Bailyn wrote in the foreword to his 1965 book, Pamphlets of the American Revolution , there were more than four hundred pamphlets published in the colonies on the imperial controversy up through 1776, and nearly four times that number by war’s end in 1783. 2 These pamphlets varied in their theme and approach, including tracts of constitutional theory or history, sermons and orations, correspondence, literary pieces, and political debate. Bailyn originally decided to print seventy-two of these in a significant project that began with fourteen dated 1750–1765. In a two-hundred-page general introduction to what promised to be a multivolume effort, Bailyn developed an interpretation about the content of what was to follow, an analysis that he would deepen a few years later in the seminal Ideological Origins of the American Revolution ( 1967 ).

According to Bailyn, the pamphlets—“booklets consisting of a few printer’s sheets, folded in various ways so as to make various sizes and numbers of pages and sold . . . for a few pence, at most a shilling or two”—were the “most important and characteristic writing of the American Revolution.” 3 They were normally small but quite flexible in size, ranging from ten to fifty pages in length. Because of this flexibility and cheap cost, they were printed everywhere. Bailyn found them especially grouped around three moments during the controversy: the Stamp Act crisis ( 1765–1766 ), the Townshend Duties and Boston Massacre ( 1767–1770 ), and the Boston Tea Party and Parliament’s response in the Coercive Acts ( 1774 ). In them, he argued, were the most creative and powerful arguments that drove the Anglo-American controversy to war and independence. No empty vessels of propaganda or intentional deceit, the political pamphlets clarified the abstract constitutional issues and sharpened American response, according to Bailyn.

The pamphlets channeled and focused colonial resistance by framing dissent via appeals to history and political experience. The pamphleteers often invoked the lessons from the fall of the Roman republic, the political strife of the English Civil War, and the libertarian warnings from those who opposed the administration of Robert Walpole in the early 1700s. They blended the political theories from republicans stretching back to the ancient world with English writers from the 17th and 18th centuries. Together, they instructed the colonial public that political and personal liberty were in jeopardy because British imperial reformers sought to strip them of their natural rights, especially the right to consent to a government that could hear and understand them. Without representation, American colonists were political dependents who lacked any form of redress. Many of the pamphlets assumed a significant amount of knowledge of recent and ancient history, as well as sophisticated understandings of constitutional and legal relationships. The most successful, however, were those who aimed their rhetoric to a larger reading public. Tom Paine’s Common Sense , is, of course, the classic example. Paine eschewed a learned style and posture and instead embraced vernacular language and forwarded arguments drawn from more readily understood sources, especially the Bible.

Pamphlets that supported the Crown appeared within a few months of one another in late 1774 and early 1775 . From the Stamp Act in 1765 until this point, loyalists had dismissed the patriot movement as inconsequential and unpopular, viewing their street protests and constitutional arguments as, apparently, not worth the effort of refutation. Once the First Continental Congress met in September– October 1774 and, especially, after loyalists saw the wide popularity of the Continental Association (the extensive, general boycott that was to be binding in all colonies) passed by that body, they suddenly realized this effort was worthwhile after all. Pamphlets by Samuel Seabury, Thomas Chandler, and Daniel Leonard all appeared during this frenzied moment, trying to halt the wave of patriot support, but it was largely too late. Although the patriots took their efforts seriously—John Adams (writing as “Novanglus”) saw it to engage Leonard (writing as “Massachusettensis”) point-by-point in extended newspaper exchanges—the loyalists had waited too long to present their side to the colonial public.

The key political pamphlets that supported resistance from 1765 to 1776 are: James Otis, Rights of British Colonies Asserted and Proved (Boston, 1764 ); Richard Bland, Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies (Williamsburg, 1766 ); John Dickinson, Letters of a Farmer in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1768 ); James Warren, Oration to Commemorate the Bloody Tragedy of the Fifth of March, 1770 (Boston, 1772 ); Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British Americans (Williamsburg, 1774 ); Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Philadelphia, 1776 ); and John Adams, Thoughts on Government (Philadelphia, 1776 ).

The key political pamphlets that opposed colonial resistance from 1765 to 1776 are: Samuel Seabury, The Congress Canvassed (New York, 1774 ); Thomas B. Chandler, A Friendly Address to All Reasonable Americans (New York, 1774 ); Daniel Leonard, Origin of the American Contest . . . by Massachusettensis (Boston, 1775 ); Charles Inglis, The Deceiver Unmasked (New York, 1776 ); and James Chalmers, Plain Truth (Philadelphia, 1776 ).

Newspapers and the American Revolution

For much of the 18th century colonial newspaper printers published content that was mostly related to the affairs of government, whether proclamations, laws, orders, or money. This was by necessity; because of weak markets, tight credit, scare supplies, poor transportation, and irregular labor, printers who did not have a connection to government contracts had a near impossible time making ends meet. 4 Most colonial printers lived very precarious economic lives. Their social status was low—they worked hard, and with their hands—but their information largely came from gentlemen. They depended on the circles of gentle folk, but were not welcome in them. 5 The columns of their usually four-page weekly newspaper issues were filled with information from England and Europe before mid-century, usually stories taken from London papers. From their newspapers colonists knew far more about the goings-on at the courts and capitals of Europe than they did about one another. Printers depended on their colleagues in other cities for news: they sent free copies of their papers across the Atlantic for the purposes of the “exchanges”—the clipping of news items from one paper and placing it in your own issue. They also depended on local gentlemen and city officials to come into their shops bearing information of public import, whether a portion of a private letter that they volunteered to be anonymously extracted for public consumption, or documents with bearing on public concern that they ordered sent to the printer for publication. Printers were not seekers but receivers of information in the late 18th century. The “exchanges,” however, acted as a powerful tool for political mobilization. Because they acted in many ways like a modern newswire, carrying the same story almost intact from city to city, the “exchanges” provided a form of simultaneity and shared political experience. The exchange system provided the members of the colonial resistance movement with a method to shore up a very inchoate and unstable sense of intercolonial unity. Crafty patriot writers understood and used the “exchange” system to great advantage to get certain key messages or images that fostered resistance out to a wide continental public to foster support they would have otherwise had difficulty building.

Reliance on government largesse shifted in the 1760s, as political items, stories, and essays about the burgeoning “imperial crisis” appeared more frequently. Starting in the 1760s the number of newspapers rose significantly, doubling between 1763 and 1775 , and then doubling again from 1775 to 1790. 6 Political engagement also led to a shift away from the traditional efforts by newspaper printers earlier in the century to keep their columns open to both sides of debates. After the Stamp Act—whether because of personal political leanings or because they thought it best to suit their market niche—printers began to abandon the ideal of neutrality to embrace or reject colonial resistance of British imperial reform. 7 A few printers, including William Goddard (Providence), William Bradford (Philadelphia), Peter Timothy (Charleston), John Holt (New York City), Benjamin Edes and John Gill (Boston) joined in the “cause” in various ways, either by becoming members of the Sons of Liberty, opening their print shops for political meetings, or publishing a wide array of stories, essays, and items that supported the cause. On the other hand, a few other printers, including James Rivington, Richard Draper, and Robert Wells, made their newspapers available for loyalists to submit essays that criticized patriot resistance efforts.

Anonymity was a key feature of publication in the late 18th century. Authors of essays that either appeared in pamphlet form or were serialized across several weekly issues of newspapers often appeared under a pseudonym to protect all involved parties: the writer, the publisher, and the concept of a “free press.” But with printers taking increasingly polarized political stances—and popular understanding of the role of newspaper printers in the burgeoning “imperial crisis” shifting—the effectiveness of the shield of pseudonyms faltered.

For example, what happened at the end of 1767 between the printers of the Boston Gazette and Boston Chronicle illuminates the increasing political pressure on newspaper publishers, and the suddenness by which a confrontation could now escalate into violence. From its opening issue that year, the Boston Chronicle , published by recent Scot emigrant John Mein and his partner John Fleeming, provoked the city’s opponents of imperial reform. Mein and Fleeming started the Chronicle with an attack on two of the patriots’ favorite British leaders, the Earl of Chatham and the Marquis of Rockingham. Naturally, the Boston radicals who paid close attention to matters of print, that is, Samuel Adams and James Otis, fought back in their dedicated organ, Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette . Under the cover of a pseudonym, Otis wrote an essay slandering Mein as a Jacobite. Soon an outraged Mein burst into the Gazette office demanding the contributor’s name, but got no satisfaction. Still fuming, a few nights later he caned his Gazette colleague John Gill on a Boston street. 8 Several weeks later, Samuel Adams, writing as “Populus,” described this clubbing not as a private affair between the two printers but instead a “Spaniard-like Attempt” to restrict press freedom. 9

Criminal charges and severe fines did not deter Mein. Nearly two years later, Mein and Fleeming sought to embarrass the Sons of Liberty once again, this time by revealing the caprice and self-interest that they thought really actuated the non-importation boycott the Sons had organized to resist the Townshend Duties. The Chronicle featured fifty-five lists of shipping manifests revealing the names of merchants who broke the non-importation agreement, including many who had actually signed the boycott. In response it was many upset Bostonians who embraced vigilantism this time. Mein and Fleeming had published the lists to suggest the boycott was really an effort to eliminate business competition on the part of merchants sympathetic to the Sons. Now they had to stuff pistols in their pockets to walk the streets of Boston. 10 In October the Boston town meeting condemned Mein as an enemy of his country, and a few days later a large crowd confronted the offending printers on King Street, producing a scuffle that left Mein bruised, Fleeming’s pistol empty, and a few dozen angry Bostonians facing British bayonets. Mein at first took shelter in the guardhouse, but, when Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson did not offer vigorous support, the truculent printer departed for England.

Evidence of a growing polarization and politicization, the clash between the Boston Gazette and Boston Chronicle was also about naming names. Mein wanted the Gazette printers to tell him who called him a Jacobite; his own paper’s revealing of the identities of importers animated the crowd and forced the Chronicle printer into exile. Anonymity was itself a transforming concept during the imperial crisis. Long a key feature of 18th-century print culture, with the republican claims of the patriots, anonymity took on a new significance in print, one that allowed for a broader inclusion of the public, and, by implication, the possibility of greater purchase by the people at large. As a rule, contributors to the newspapers shielded themselves with pseudonyms, often judiciously employed to cast themselves as public defenders (“Populus,” “Salus Populi,” “Rusticus”) or guardians of ancient liberty and virtue (“Mucius Scaevola,” “Cato,” “Nestor,” “Neoptelemus”). As one literary scholar has suggested, by adopting such identities those “guardians” were then not real , individual inhabitants of Boston or Philadelphia, with particular social interests, but universal promoters of republican liberty. 11 Analysts often point to the destruction of the concept of deference—a staple of 18th-century social structure—as a sign of the Revolution’s radicalness. The shift in the understanding of anonymity in print was a key factor in decoupling social status from political authority. That shift helped undermine deference as an organizing concept of American social and political culture.

Printers, then, mediated several fluid and rapidly changing concepts of both their professions and colonial politics before the Revolution. They were the keepers of very important political secrets. They alone knew who had submitted a manuscript for publication; only they could pierce the republican fiction of anonymity. Often, this position was precarious. As political pressure increased in the 1760s and 1770s, the impulse to throw off these veils was occasionally very strong. Printers periodically found themselves or their property in harm’s way if they refused to bow to the will of angry demands that they confess.

John Gill would not be the only one to suffer from this increasing imperative; throughout the Revolution several printers on both sides of the imperial question found themselves or their property at risk. In 1776 , when New York Packet printer Samuel Loudon dared to advertise the publication of a pamphlet that answered Tom Paine’s Common Sense and called the “scheme of Independence ruinous and delusive,” the Mechanics Committee, a radical patriot group created in 1774 out of the Sons of Liberty, summoned the printer to explain his behavior and reveal the author’s identity. 12 Loudon refused to tell the committee the Anglican rector of Trinity Church, Charles Inglis, had written the pamphlet, so six members of the committee went to his shop and, in Loudon’s words, “nailed and sealed up the printed sheets in boxes, except a few which were drying in an empty house, which they locked, and took the key with them.” 13 They warned Loudon to stop publishing the pamphlet, or else his “personal safety might be endangered.” Although he “promised to comply,” this pledge “availed nothing for my security.” Late the next night, forty men returned, broke into his office, grabbed all fifteen hundred copies of Inglis’s pamphlet, “carried them into the commons, and there burned them.” 14

The highly charged content of those publications, whether the weekly newspapers or pamphlets like The Deceiver Unmasked , also fueled partisanship. The imperial crisis witnessed what one scholar has called the advent of the “exposé” in America. 15 As printers increasingly gave space to contributors who claimed they were unmasking corruption or conspiracy, they aided in the disintegration of established concepts of what kept a press “free.” The most impassioned publications of the 1760s–1770s—Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, the chronicle of soldiers’ abuses known as the “Journal of Occurrences,” Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, and Thomas Hutchinson’s private letters—all centered on revealing or dramatizing the government’s true aims of stripping American colonists of their liberties. There were not two sides to “truth.” Either behind pseudonyms or not, the patriot writers or artists who brought these plots to light claimed they were heroic servants of the people, informants seeking to protect an unwitting public from tyranny’s stealthy advance. This was not a debate. So framed, it was also a difficult position to counter. At the same time, the appearance of each of these “exposés” also represented a choice by the printers themselves. By giving space to the “truth”—and, by extension, to the protection of the people’s rights—they took a side that changed the older values of press freedom forever. A free or open press, they decided, did not have to allow equal space for opposing viewpoints that they characterized as endorsing lies and tyranny.

Print was an essential factor in pushing the colonists toward revolution even if it was not sufficient to cause the Revolution. Benjamin Franklin, it should not surprise, grasped perfectly the power of newspapers. “By the press we can speak to nations,” the printer-turned-politician wrote a friend in 1782. Thanks to newspapers, Franklin concluded, political leaders could not only “strike while the iron is hot” but also stoke fires by “continually striking.” 16 Those bundles of newspapers—dropped off at crossroad inns and subscribers’ rural estates in the countryside, distributed among urban taverns and gathering places in the cities, imported into the army camps—had the potential to be potent tools of revolutionary mobilization. Patriot leaders from the mid-1760s through the Treaty of Paris spent a great deal of time and, more illuminating, moneysupporting all kinds of print: subsidizing printers, aiding in paper supplies, contributing private correspondence to newspapers, ordering the publication of certain documents, treating printing presses as military contraband, sending pamphlets in diplomatic packets, arranging for illustrations for a child’s book of British atrocities. The journals of the proceedings of patriot political authorities at all levels, from local committees of safety, to state legislatures, to the Continental Congress, give evidence that they saw their actions as intertwined with printers. The working men and women attached to American print shops—the riders carrying papers to the countryside, the apprentices and slaves working the press, the journeymen assembling types, for example—were essential to the Revolution too.

A Guide to Newspapers during the American Revolution

On April 19, 1775, there were thirty-seven active newspapers in the colonies. When Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781, there were thirty-five. Of those original thirty-seven papers that printed the news of Lexington and Concord, only twenty made it through the war and very few of those were able to continue publishing a paper each week. This number would ebb and flow. War exacerbated printers’ capacity to secure ready supplies of materials, especially paper. Seventeen prewar prints would expire during the fighting while eighteen new ventures were started but were also discontinued at some point. The mean number for active newspapers between 1775 and 1783 is thirty-five; the approximate number of thirty-five holds up throughout the war’s duration.

In Boston, the engagements at Lexington and Concord instantly upended the city’s newspaper production. Three prints that defended the Ministry closed that month. Patriot papers, including Benjamin Edes and John Gill’s radical Boston Gazette and Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy had to suspend publication as they fled to the countryside. On May 3, Thomas continued to print from Worcester, where he would stay throughout the remainder of the war. Edes also brought out the Boston Gazette again from Watertown on June 5. When the British evacuated Boston in March 1776 , the Boston Gazette again took up residence in the city, but the important Edes and Gill partnership had not survived the move out of Boston. John Gill started his own pro-American organ, the Continental Journal , in May. A fifth paper, Powers and Willis’s New England Chronicle became the Independent Chronicle in 1776 . In 1778 Edward Draper and John Folsom started another Boston paper, the Independent Ledger . For much of the war Boston boasted six prints. When one closed, another, like James White and Thomas Adams’s Boston Evening Post (which ran from October 1778 to March 1780 ) opened. Outside Boston, John Mycall published the Essex Journal in Newburyport from 1775 to early 1777 . In all, Massachusetts boasted of six long-lasting and important papers that supported the Revolution, with the Massachusetts Spy , Boston Gazette , and Continental Journal being the most significant.

Newspapers in Connecticut enjoyed the most stability during the war. The same four papers that contained the news of Lexington also reprinted the Treaty of Paris. Since the mid-18th century the powerful Green family dominated the colony’s print business. During the Revolution they operated the Connecticut Gazette in New London (Timothy Green) and the Connecticut Journal in New Haven (Thomas and Samuel Green). Ebenezer Watson and later George Goodwin and Barzillai Hudson ran the Green-founded Connecticut Courant in Hartford. None suffered suspensions or dislocations. The fourth, the Norwich Packet , had begun in 1773 by John Trumbull and two brothers, Alexander and James Robertson. In May 1776 , the Robertsons, who were loyalists from Scotland, went to New York, leaving Trumbull to operate the paper alone, which he did until 1802 .

If Connecticut was the land of steady print habits, the other New England provinces, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, were the opposite. Robert Fowle had published the New Hampshire Gazette in Portsmouth since his uncle had begun the business in 1756 . In 1776 , however, New Hampshire authorities suspected Fowle of counterfeiting and printing items against the “cause.” The Gazette ceased publication on January 9. A few months later Benjamin Dearborn picked up printing in Portsmouth with the Freeman’s Journal which operated until 1778 when Robert’s uncle Daniel took over and changed the name of the print back to the New Hampshire Gazette . The war’s intrusion also hampered the press in Rhode Island. John Carter, one of Franklin’s apprentices, was able to maintain his Whiggish Providence Gazette throughout the war. Solomon Southwick and the Newport Mercury were less lucky. In November 1775 , fearing an impending invasion, Southwick moved his materials out of his Newport office. A year later, when the British did occupy the city, he was forced to bury his press and types for four years. A patriot, Southwick tried to keep active by printing on a borrowed press in Attleborough and Providence in the interim, but the Newport Mercury lay dormant until January 1780 when Henry Barber carried on.

Southwick’s problems were minor compared to the experiences of New York’s printers. At the outbreak of war there were three papers in New York City: John Holt’s New York Journal , Hugh Gaine’s New York Gazette & Weekly Mercury , and James Rivington’s New York Gazetteer . Holt supported the Revolutionaries, Gaine equivocated, and Rivington was popularly known as the leading Tory printer in the colonies. In August 1775 , James Anderson began a second patriot press, the New York Constitutional Gazette , which brought out a paper three times a week. Another pro-American print began in January 1776 with Samuel Loudon beginning production of the New York Packet . These last two papers had little time to get settled because the British invasion in September 1776 changed everything. Anderson closed permanently, Loudon went to Fishkill, New York, Holt took his types to Kingston, New York (also known as Esopus), and Gaine fled for a few weeks to Newark, New Jersey. While Gaine was in New Jersey, the British army, lacking a paper, commissioned Ambrose Serle to start his own “engine.” Gaine, who had been printing a paper in New York since 1752 , decided after a few weeks that the British market would better serve his financial interests, and he returned to the city on November 11, 1776 , to displace Serle’s nascent operation. Gaine’s decision to turn his coat infuriated the Revolutionaries, and his name would be synonymous with deceit and greed for the remainder of the war. Philip Freneau’s stinging poem, “Hugh Gaine’s Life,” which some patriot printers happily published in 1783, typified this anger.

In occupied New York, papers flourished. In addition to Gaine, Rivington, the well-educated son of a prominent London book-seller, returned in 1777 and reestablished his print tri-weekly, the Robertson brothers from Norwich also began a bi-weekly Royal American Gazette that year, and when William Lewis started the New York Mercury in September 1779 , New York had a combination daily newspaper. Meanwhile, the dispersed patriot papers had a more difficult time outside the city. Outside the main avenues of communication, Loudon still managed to maintain publication of the Packet from Fishkill throughout the war. Holt published from Kingston from July to October 1777 when disaster struck again as the British sacked the town. In May 1778 he resurfaced in even more remote Poughkeepsie, New York, where he struggled to maintain his connections with Governor George Clinton and keep the New York Journal in circulation.

The presence of the British army in New York also meant that New Jersey would be an active theater of violence from 1776 onward. In December 1777 , Isaac Collins, a Quaker who was sponsored by Governor William Livingston and partly financed by the state, founded the New Jersey Gazette in Burlington. A few months later he relocated to Trenton, where he would maintain publication until July 1783 . Sheppard Kollock, a former Continental Army lieutenant, started a second newspaper ( New Jersey Journal ) in Chatham, New Jersey in February 1779 because Washington wanted his troops to have a newspaper while they were in winter quarters in nearby Morristown. Since a large number of Kollock’s subscribers were soldiers, this paper contained a high quotient of war news until the end of hostilities. The sponsorship of newspapers in New Jersey by patriot authorities suggests how they thought about the centrality of print to the war effort. The New Jersey state legislature and governor, the Continental Army, and Continental Congress all expended valuable time and money to put sheets of newsprint in the hands of soldiers and civilians in the zone between Philadelphia and occupied Manhattan.

Since the mid-18th century, Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia had been the center of colonial print culture. At the war’s outset, there were six English language newspapers being published in Philadelphia. The two oldest prints were the Pennsylvania Gazette and Pennsylvania Journal . David Hall and William Sellers now operated Franklin’s organ, the nearly fifty-year-old Pennsylvania Gazette , while William Bradford—who had branched into coffee houses, marine insurance—still operated the Pennsylvania Journal more than thirty years after its founding. Irish printer John Dunlap had joined them in 1771 with the Pennsylvania Packet , while three more papers, Benjamin Towne’s tri-weekly Pennsylvania Evening Post , Story and David Humphrey’s Pennsylvania Mercury , and John Humphreys Jr.’s Pennsylvania Ledger , began in early 1775 . Bradford and Dunlap were the most active Whigs among their colleagues, Hall and Sellers took a moderate course, John Humphreys tended toward the king, and Towne—like Gaine in New York—fended for himself. Congress spread their printing business around: for example John Dunlap was the first to produce a broadside text of the Declaration of Independence, while Towne had the honor of being the first to insert it in his July 6 issue. Delegates to the Continental Congress who wrote articles and essays sent them to Bradford and Dunlap.

Early on there was some turbulence in the Philadelphia print community. In December 1775 a fire ended the Mercury . The following November, Towne, an Englishman, attacked James Humphreys for being a Tory, a campaign that subsequently drove him out of town. Just as Humphreys fled, it appeared that the British might sweep into Philadelphia and all papers suspended publication except Towne’s Evening Post . Bradford joined the Continental Army as a colonel and fought in New Jersey. After the invasion scare dissipated with Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton, Philadelphia papers resumed operations. The following fall, though, Howe’s successful expedition against Philadelphia scattered printers and delegates alike across Pennsylvania. With the occupation, Bradford suspended his Journal , Hall and Sellers followed Congress to York and published there, while Dunlap took the Packet to nearby Lancaster for a period of months. Towne, on the other hand, stayed put, deciding to turn his coat and print a loyalist paper. Humphreys returned to Philadelphia and restarted the Ledger during the nine-month occupation. James Robertson came down from New York to produce a Royal Pennsylvania Gazette from March to May 1778 . When the British left Philadelphia in May, Humphreys closed the Ledger and went along. Apparently attached to the city no matter the political climate, Towne turned his coat back again toward the Revolution and kept his paper alive. Towne’s navigation of choppy political waters earned him disdain among Whigs but not permanent banishment. The Evening Post would soon have the distinction of becoming America’s first daily newspaper. The Gazette and Journal returned from the countryside after the British evacuated, although Thomas Bradford took over production from his aging father who had reprised his role as printer-turned-officer when the British occupied Philadelphia. Later in the war, two volatile prints appeared in Philadelphia, Francis Bailey’s Freeman’s Journal and Eleazer Oswald’s Independent Gazette , which were each attached to political factions surrounding the Pennsylvania constitution. Bailey had previously published the United States Magazine in Philadelphia, which was edited by Hugh Henry Brackenridge and featured the poetry of Philip Freneau.

In Baltimore, the Goddards’ Maryland Journal was constant. Founded by William Goddard but operated by his sister Mary, the Maryland Journal maintained active publishing throughout the war, although it declined in importance after William Goddard backed Charles Lee in his dispute with Washington over the conduct of the war. In 1779 , Mary took on Eleazer Oswald as a partner, which lasted for two years before he left for Philadelphia to begin the Independent Gazetteer . A second paper in Baltimore ran from May 1775 to September 1778 , called Dunlap’s Maryland Gazette . James Hayes subsequently took over for Dunlap and continued it in Baltimore for a year. Another of the Connecticut Green printers, Jonas Green, had established a Maryland Gazette in Annapolis in 1745 . During the war it was an important paper operated by his son Frederick (after his wife Anne Catherine had kept it active for five years in the 1760s–1770s). It too suffered a sixteen-month suspension from December 1777 to April 1779 .

Confusion reigns about Revolutionary newspapers in 18th-century Virginia because they all shared the same name. In April 1775 there were four Virginia Gazettes , three in Williamsburg and one in Norfolk. John Pinkney had inherited a press from Clementina Rind in 1774 , which he operated in Williamsburg until February 3, 1776 . Alexander Purdie, a Scot, had a paper that he ran from early 1775 until his death in April 1779, when his nephew John Clarkson and one of Purdie’s printers, Augustine Davis, continued the press until December 1780 . John Dixon and William Hunter operated one Virginia Gazette that had been established in 1751 . When Hunter decided to throw his lot in with the British in December 1778 , Dixon (who would eventually become mayor of Williamsburg) took on a new partner, Thomas Nicholson, and continued until April 1780 . British invasions that year wreaked havoc on the press. Clarkson and Davis’s Gazette folded and Dixon and Nicholson transferred their operation to the safety of Richmond, where they would print until May 1781 . The surrender of Cornwallis allowed the submerged press to resurface, and two new versions of the Virginia Gazette appeared in Richmond at the end of 1781 : one by Nicholson and William Prentis, and a second by James Hayes.

In the Deep South, newspaper coverage was sparse. North Carolina boasted two papers in 1775 , the Cape Fear Mercury and North Carolina Gazette . Since copies of neither have been well preserved, the best estimate is that the Wilmington Cape Fear Mercury ceased publication in September 1775 . Shortly afterwards, its printer, Adam Boyd, joined the Continental Army. A second paper, the North Carolina Gazette, was printed sporadically by James Davis in New Bern until November 1778 . James Johnston operated the only paper in Georgia, Savannah’s Georgia Gazette , beginning in 1763 . Apparently disaffected to the Revolution, Johnston discontinued the paper in February 1776 , only to revive it as the Royal Georgia Gazette in January 1779 after the British occupied the city. He maintained that paper until the British evacuated in 1782 but was able to stay in Savannah when his name was placed on a list of those loyalists who were allowed to remain if they paid a fine. In January 1783 , he established the Gazette of the State of Georgia .

The presence of the British Army in South Carolina interfered with newspaper production more than anywhere else. Whereas printers in New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island adjusted their production to the upheaval of war, Charleston printers did not. After 1780 , no pro-American newspaper was published south of Williamsburg. The impact of this print vacuum is seldom appreciated (because difficult to quantify) in scholars’ interpretations for why the war in the south turned into a brutal civil war in the early 1780s. If print was essential to organizing and garnering support for the war in the 1770s in the northern and middle colonies, then it stands to reason that the lack of it in the south—or the robust appearance of British papers—also contributed to the fraying of patriot support in the Deep South. Three papers reported the news of Lexington, Peter Timothy’s South Carolina Gazette , the South Carolina & American General Gazette printed by Robert Wells and his son John, and Charles Crouch’s South Carolina Gazette & Country Journal . Soon after word of war in Massachusetts reached South Carolina, the conflict’s effects began to take their toll. Robert Wells left for England right away, never to return. In August 1775 , Crouch discontinued the Country Journal and subsequently died en route to New York. Timothy, Crouch’s brother-in-law, the most ardently Whig of the South Carolina printers, and the son of another Franklin apprentice, also folded his shop in December 1775 . John Wells Jr. alone carried on publication, invasion scares in 1776 and 1779 notwithstanding. Timothy returned with a new name, the Gazette of the State of South Carolina , in April 1777 , giving the Revolutionaries two organs in the South—until the British siege disrupted everything in early 1780 . When the city fell in March Timothy was taken prisoner and sent to St. Augustine. The following year he would perish in a sea accident. Despite the fact that he had purposely added “Jr.” to his name in order to distance himself from his loyalist family and had fought at Savannah in 1779 , John Wells Jr. decided to protect his property by remaining in Charleston and his paper became the Royal Gazette . After the war this decision forced him to take his press to Nassau and found the Bahama Gazette . New York printer James Robertson arrived with Cornwallis and, along with two partners, established the Royal South Carolina Gazette in June 1780 . Both Wells and Robertson’s papers ran as long as the British occupation.

By 1783 , the travails of war (especially in the South) had diminished the number of newspapers to thirty, with twelve in New England and thirteen in the middle states. Several printers had managed to weather the storm and kept turning out papers for subscribers. New titles also emerged by war’s end, most notably Eleazer Oswald’s radical Independent Gazetteer , one of the only Philadelphia newspapers to publish criticisms of the Constitution in 1788 . In the first years of the “more perfect union,” however, the appearance of new newspapers exploded, with an average of twenty separate papers being founded in each year of the early republic, a massive efflorescence aided in part by their being subsidized by the federal government in the form of low postal rates. Print in the 1790s would be far more specialized, with printers becoming even more embedded in professional politics. 17

Discussion of the Literature

Ever since the early historian of the Revolution David Ramsay made his 1789 pronouncement about the “pen and press” having “merit equal to that of the sword,” print has enjoyed a central place in interpretations of the Revolution’s causes and consequences. Whiggish nationalist historians in the 19th century celebrated print as a carrier of the Revolution’s noble ideas and high-minded principles. Skeptical, Progressive historians in the early decades of the 1900s argued that newspapers and pamphlets were rather simply mechanisms of self-interested politicians. They were not carriers of ideals but rather tools of propaganda to dupe an unsuspecting public into ratifying policies that lined the pockets of political and economic elites. Samuel Adams, according to John C. Miller’s 1936 book Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda , manipulated print to get the Boston crowds to do his bidding. In his 1940 study Propaganda and the American Revolution , Philip Davidson contended that because the Revolution was “at best but the work of an aggressive minority,” patriot leaders needed a “conscious, systemic effort” (xiv)—to convince the public to follow their lead. One Progressive historian, Arthur Meier Schlesinger, published a central text about the role of print in the Revolution in 1957 . His Prelude to Independence moved past the instrumental Progressive interpretation that saw the patriots as false prophets. For Schlesinger, the printers were essential to moving the Revolution forward, and they also believed in the broader deals articulated in the newspaper essays and pamphlets that they sent forth from their print shops each week.

In the 1960s, Bernard Bailyn, himself reacting against the Progressive interpretation of self-interest and conflict, planned a major study of the ideology that underpinned the prodigious number of political pamphlets that appeared during the imperial crisis, the first volume of which, Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750–1765 appeared in 1965 . Two years later, Bailyn extended this interpretation in a celebrated, prize-winning volume titled Ideological Origins of the American Revolution , which not only took ideas seriously (and not merely dismissing the pamphlets as empty expressions of propaganda), but also by implication the medium in which they appeared as well. A few years later, the American Antiquarian Society—the central repository for early American print since its founding in 1812—invited Bailyn to coedit a volume of essays on print and press freedom in commemoration of the bicentennial, which was soon published with the title The Press and the American Revolution . One of the essayists in that volume, Stephen Botein, had recently published an extended, seminal essay in the journal Perspectives in American History , entitled “‘Meer Mechanics’ and an Open Press: The Business and Political Practices of Colonial American Printers.”

In 2001 , Jeffrey Pasley, a former news reporter turned historian, published “ The Tyranny of Printers ,” a study that took the efforts of newspaper publishers very seriously and at their word. Pasley sought not to explain the role of press in the Revolution but used the 1770s as his starting point to explore the central role of newspaper printers in the political life of the early American republic, especially in the creation of political parties. For Pasley, the Revolution did not lead to the politicization of newspapers or their printers as previous historians suggested, instead pointing to the 1790s as the turning point rather than the 1760s. For him, it was the preferences of the public at large that encouraged precarious printers to choose sides in the Revolution rather than the printers’ own political principles.

In the face of all these studies that took Ramsay’s aphorism as a starting point, in 2007 Trish Loughran published The Republic in Print . Loughran argued that the ability of print to carry ideas as previous historians asserted was impossible in the 1700s. Lacking industrialized, steam-powered presses, there was simply no way hundreds of thousands of people read Common Sense in 1776 , she argued. The capacity to produce and deliver the number of texts that would be required for print to do what historians suggested it did (i.e., cause and sustain the Revolution) was not viable in the 1770s. An iconoclastic study, The Republic in Print offers the first major dissent in more than two centuries about whether print was indeed central (for good or ill) in the coming and consequences of the American Revolution. Loughran’s emphasis on materiality is refreshing, but it suffers from postindustrial expectations. Although it is certainly wise to doubt Tom Paine’s boasts of hundreds of thousands of copies of Common Sense flooding every household in America, that should not translate into interpretations that print—in its preindustrial, hand-pressed, horse-carried form—was therefore scarce and ineffective. Print’s influence was hardly limited to the initial purchaser or reader, but was often shared in taverns, coffeehouses, and other public spaces, where it also crossed into oral cultures. A final word on Loughran’s iconoclasm should come from Ambrose Serle, a member of Lord Howe’s staff when the British occupied New York City in 1776 . In a letter back to the British secretary of state, Serle opined “among other engines, which have raised the present commotions none has had a more extensive or stronger influence than the Newspapers of the respective colonies. One is astonished to see with what Avidity they are sought after, and how implicitly they are believed by the great Bulk of the People.” 18 Serle believed the biggest mistake the British had made was not taking print seriously. He soon started a royalist newspaper in New York City to rectify this blunder. Serle, for one, would be quite surprised to read Loughran’s book.

Literary scholar Russ Castronovo’s book Propaganda 1776 embraces the old problem of propaganda once again, but instead of seeing the patriots in 20th-century guises (Sam Adams as America’s Joseph Goebbels), he sees them as propagators—a useful term that 18th-century farmers would have recognized. They used print to grow more patriots. According to Castronovo, the particular nature of print, with its inherent ability to carry emotion over wide spaces, pushed the Revolution faster than it might have gone otherwise. Here, it seems, the interpretation of print as a genuine motivator of hearts and minds at the heart of the Revolutionary movement has returned to a position in the historiography that David Ramsay would appreciate.

Primary Sources

Relevant primary sources include: Clarence Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690–1820 (2 vols., Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1947 ); Charles Lathem, ed., Chronological Tables of American Newspapers, 1690–1850 (Barre, MA: American Antiquarian Society and Barre Publishers, 1972 ); Frank Moore, The Diary of the American Revolution, 1775–1781 (New York: Washington Square Press, 1967 [ 1876 ]); and Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America, With a Biography of Printers & An Account of Newspapers (New York: Weathervane Press, 1970 [ 1874 ]).

Links to Digital Materials

Index to Virginia Gazettes

American Antiquarian Society Digital Images Archive

American Archives : documents from 1774 to 1776, including many letters that would become newspaper “reports,” compiled by Peter Force in the 1830s–1840s.

American Historical Newspapers (Readex; by subscription)

Rag Linen : collector Todd Andrlik’s blog on Revolutionary era newspapers, including many images.

Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800 (Readex; by subscription)

Historical Periodicals Collection, 1691-1820 (EBSCO; by subscription)

The Sid Lapidus '59 Collection on Liberty and the American Revolution : collection of 150 pamphlets of the American Revolution, of which 74 are scanned and available at Princeton University Digital Library.

“ The Coming of the Revolution, 1764-1776 ”: an online exhibit by the Massachusetts Historical Society, containing many printed images.

Further Reading

  • Amory, Hugh , and David D. Hall , eds. A History of the Book in America: Volume 1: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Bailyn, Bernard . Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750–1765. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.
  • Bailyn, Bernard , and John B. Hench , eds. The Press and the American Revolution. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1980.
  • Botein, Stephen . “‘Meer Mechanics’ and an Open Press: The Business and Political Strategies of Colonial American Printers.” Perspectives in American History 9 (1975): 127–225.
  • Castronovo, Russ . Propaganda 1776: Secrets, Leaks, and Revolutionary Communication in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Clark, Charles E. The Public Prints: The Newspaper in Anglo-American Culture, 1665–1740. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Davidson, Philip . Propaganda and the American Revolution . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1940.
  • Loughran, Trish . The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770–1870. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
  • Monaghan, E. Jennifer . Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.
  • Pasley, Jeffrey L. “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur Meier, Sr. Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764–1776. New York: Vintage, 1957.
  • Warner, Michael . The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

1. David Ramsay , The History of the American Revolution , ed. Lester H. Cohen, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1990) , vol. 2, 633–634. Originally published in 1789.

2. Bernard Bailyn , Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750–1776 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), vii, 8 .

3. Ibid. , 3 .

4. David D. Hall , “The Atlantic Economy in the Eighteenth Century,” in A History of the Book in America: Volume 1: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World , ed. Hugh Amory and David D. Hall (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 155 , 163.

5. Stephen Botein , “‘Meer Mechanics’ and an Open Press: The Business and Political Strategies of Colonial American Printers,” Perspectives in American History 9 (1975): 150–151.

6. Charles E. Clark, “Early American Journalism: News and Opinion in the Popular Press,” in History of the Book in America , ed. Amory and Hall, vol. 1, 359.

7. Botein, “Meer Mechanics,” 211–225.

8. For more see Hiller Zobel , The Boston Massacre (New York: Norton, 1970), 66–67 , and Richard Archer , As If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 147–148 .

9. Boston Gazette , February 1, 1768.

10. Zobel, Boston Massacre , 152–163; Archer, As If an Enemy’s Country , 162–163; and Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr ., Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764–1776 (New York: Vintage, 1957), 105–108 .

11. Michael Warner , The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 34–72 .

12. Schlesinger, Prelude to Independence , 257.

13. Memorial of Samuel Loudon to the New York Committee of Safety, 20 March 1776, in American Archives 4th series, ed. Peter Force (Washington, DC, 1839), vol. 5, 439.

14. Ibid. , 5: 440.

15. Thomas C. Leonard , “News for a Revolution: The Exposé in America, 1768–1773,” Journal of American History 67 (June 1980): 26–40 .

16. Benjamin Franklin to Richard Price, Passy, 13 June 1782, in Papers of Benjamin Franklin , ed. William Wilcox (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959–), vol. 37, 472–473 .

17. Pasley, “Tyranny of Printers,” 47–48, 404.

18. Ambrose Serle to the Earl of Dartmouth, 25 July 1776, in Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America, 1773–1783 , ed. Benjamin F. Stevens (Wilmington, DE: Mellifont, 1970), vol. 24, 2040–2046 .

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Here are key electronic resources that include primary source texts with a relatively broad focus in full-text and/or facsimile from Britain in the long eighteenth century .

British Newspapers and Periodicals

Here are links to electronic resources focused on historical newspapers, periodicals, and journals covering Britain in the long eighteenth century.

See also "General" sources like ECCO, above. 

Ballads, Broadsides, Playbills, and Ephemera

Here are resources that include ballads, broadsides, playbills, and other ephemera from the long eighteenth century in Britain.

See also General primary sources above and separate page in this LibGuide for  Primary Sources: Images

  • American Broadsides and Ephemera.
  • Nineteenth Century Collections Online
  • Victorian popular culture

Economics, Government and Legal Documents, State Papers

Here are links to  primary source documents  focused primarily on the topics of British eighteenth-century  economics, government and state, and legal issues.

  • Colonial State Papers
  • The making of modern law.
  • State papers online

Literature--Drama, Fiction, Poetry

Here are links to electronic resources that focus on Engilsh literary primary source materials that include the long eighteenth century.

  • British Literary Manuscripts Online
  • Early English Prose Fiction
  • Editions and Adaptations of Shakespeare
  • Eighteenth-Century Fiction
  • Literary Manuscripts
  • Scottish Women Poets of the Romantic Period

Sociology, Lived Experience, and Letters

Special topics -- america and the british world, slavery, women, art, grand tour, etc..

Resources listed here cover primary source materials for particular locations, groups, and experiences connected to the long eighteenth century in Britain. See also following box for Newspapers & Periodicals--Special Topics: America and the British World

  • America's Historical Imprints
  • American Foreign Relations since 1600: a Guide to the Literature
  • The American Founding Era.
  • Defining gender, 1450-1910
  • Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800)
  • Early American Imprints, Series I: Supplement from the Library Company of Philadelphia
  • Early Encounters in North America
  • The Gerritsen collection of Aletta H. Jacobs
  • The grand tour
  • India, Raj & empire
  • London Low Life
  • North American Women's Letters and Diaries
  • Slavery, Abolition & Social Justice
  • Slavery & Anti-Slavery
  • World scholar.

Newspapers & Periodicals--Special Topics: America and the British World

  • Accessible Archives
  • African American Periodicals, 1825-1995
  • American Antiquarian Society (AAS) Historical Periodicals Collection: Series 1
  • America's Historical Newspapers
  • Caribbean Newspapers, 1718-1876
  • ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Hartford Courant (1764-1990)

Papers of Individuals

Here are selected collections of correspondence and papers of particular individuals, both British and American.

  • The papers of Benjamin Franklin / sponsored by the American Philosophical Society and Yale University Library ; digital edition by the Packard Humanities Institute.
  • The papers of Alexander Hamilton
  • The papers of Thomas Jefferson
  • The papers of James Madison
  • The papers of George Washington

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill online

Here are links to electronic resources that focus on literary primary source materials that include the long eighteenth century in America and other parts of the world.

  • American Drama, 1714-1915
  • North American Women's Drama
  • African-American Poetry
  • American Poetry
  • Canadian Poetry
  • Caribbean Literature
  • The ARTFL project

Eighteenth-century World Texts

  • The Early Modern Pamphlets Online
  • Deutsche Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts Online
  • HathiTrust digital library
  • Internet archive
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Writing in the 18th Century

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Prior to the early twentieth century, reading and writing were taught to children at different ages as separate skills. Typically children learned to read around the ages of 4 to 7, while writing instruction was delayed till between ages 9 and 12. This delay allowed children to develop the manual dexterity to use a quill pen, and to focus on the oral-based reading instruction of the period. Another challenge that beginners faced was immediately learning to write in “cursive”, or script, since “print” handwriting, so-called because it mirrored printed type, was reserved for specialized uses like labeling parcels.

John Locke wrote in the late seventeenth century that the best way to get a child to write was “to get a plate graved with the characters of such a hand as you like best... let several sheets of good writing-paper be printed off with red ink, which he has nothing to do but go over with a good pen fill’d with black ink”, a pedagogical method that remained constant throughout the eighteenth century. 1 From letters students moved on to copy increasingly complex sentences and letters. Advanced students sometimes combined their lessons in mathematics and languages into elaborate manuscripts, as George Washington did in an exercise book concerning geometry when he was 12 . 2

The division of literacy education into two distinct and sequentially separated skills meant that the inability to write did not necessarily imply an inability to read. While basic reading ability in America in the eighteenth century was widely considered to be a spiritual necessity regardless of a person's class, gender, or race, writing instruction was deliberately limited to elite whites of both sexes and men of business and trade.

Letter from George Washington to Jean-Francois de Chastellux. MVLA.

These manuals made it clear that business handwriting should be easy to read and quick to write. They advised those destined for the clerk’s desk or the merchant’s counting house to adopt a bold and neat hand (an 18th century term for script) such as the round hand, or the quick running hand. The latter could be written more quickly because its letters were sloped and connected to one another.

Developing proper handwriting was an essential part of the social education of the eighteenth-century gentleman as well. In contrast to merchants, writing manuals suggested young gentlemen practice until their handwriting looked effortless, easy, and disengaged. To achieve this end, penmanship books often recommended a variant on the running hand that would mark the genteel writer as distinct from the mercantile scrivener. Thomas Jefferson commented that George Washington “wrote readily, rather diffusely, in an easy correct style.” 4

Among women, writing was a skill largely restricted to elite members of the gentry in the early eighteenth century. Female literacy increased over the course of the eighteenth century as it became a necessary polite refinement for the upwardly mobile as well as a household management skill. Girls often learned in private settings from relatives or tutors, or in private female academies, where writing was taught as an accomplishment alongside skills like needlework and musical ability. Ideally their round or running hand would be pleasantly delicate and reflect the writer’s feminine sensibilities.

In areas of colonial America with public schools, such as Massachusetts, boys destined for business often learned in publically-funded writing schools. Children in the German-speaking areas of Pennsylvania often learned to write in mixed-gender church and fee-funded schools, and children and adults of both sexes learned to write from private tutors or at home throughout the colonies.

The forms for handwriting were conveyed through penmanship books, which were usually illustrated with costly copperplate engravings and almost exclusively imported into America before the 1790s. Many penmanship manuals also contained introductions to grammar, arithmetic, and accounting.

The categorization of different scripts by class and gender was reflected in the copy-phrases used in penmanship manuals: phrases for women and elite men often used moral maxims, while copy-books aimed at aspiring clerks contained bills and arithmetic problems.

Letter writing manuals grew in popularity as correspondence became a fashionable hobby for the upwardly-mobile in the mid-eighteenth century. These books advised correspondents on the various conventions of writing a letter, as well as the correct ways to address and seal it.

Before the invention of the envelope in the 19th century an essential part of a letter was the seal, which could be made of a colored flour disc called a wafer or costlier sealing wax. 18th century newspapers ads placed by stationers frequently advertised both, along with paper, pens, ink, reading glasses, and other writing essentials.

A popular American imprint introduced its section on writing with the following poem:

A Pen-Knife Razor Metal, Quills good Store:

Gum sandrick powder, to Pounce Paper o’er;

Ink, shining black, Paper more white than Snow,

Round and flat Rulers on yourselves bestow,

With willing Mind, these, and industrious Hand,

Will make this Art your Servant at Command. 5

Quill pens were made from birds’ wing feathers, usually geese. The number of quills required to keep an American colony writing was formidable, often numbering in the thousands for a writing master at a large school.

Gum sandarac, harvested from an African tree, was used to prepare the paper to absorb ink more evenly. It was also used to absorb ink blots during writing. As the rudimentary American papermaking industry was unable to keep up with demand, paper was largely imported after being made in England or the Netherlands.

Ink was often imported, and sold in both powdered and liquid forms, as well as being made at home. Eighteenth-century black inks were generally made from a combination of gum arabic (a type of tree gum) and oak galls (a hard, round outgrowth created by wasps laying their eggs in oaks), both imported from the Middle East. Inkmakers combined them with copperas (iron (II) sulfate) from Europe in a variety of recipes that included cooking, soaking, or fermenting, which produced a deep black that was seen as essential for respectable correspondence and record-keeping.

Rachel Bartgis

1. Locke, John. Some Thoughts Concerning Education. London, 1693. Reprint, Pitt Press, Cambridge, 1898, 136.

2. Washington, George. George Washington Papers, Series 1, Exercise Books, Diaries, and Surveys -99, Subseries 1A,Exercise Books -1747: School Copy Book, Volume 1. 1745.

3. Watts, Thomas. An Essay on the Proper Method for Forming the Man of Business . London, 1716, 16.

4. Thomas Jefferson, letter of 1814, quoted in Thornton, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History , 39.

5. Fisher, George. The American instructor, or, Young man's best companion . New York, 1770, 28.


Barrow, William. “Black Writing Ink of the Colonial Period.” The American Archivist : October 1948, Vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 291-307.

Bickham, George. The Universal Penman . London, 1741. (Dover reprint, 2012)

Fisher, George. The American instructor, or, Young man's best companion . New York, 1770,

Hunter, Dard. Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft . New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1978.

Locke, John. Some Thoughts Concerning Education . London, 1693. Locke, John. Some Thoughts Concerning Education. London, 1693. Reprint, Pitt Press, Cambridge, 1898,

Nash, Ray. “A Colonial Writing Master's Collection of English Copybooks.” Harvard Library Bulletin , Volume 14 (1960) 12-19.

Monaghan, E. Jennifer. Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America . Worcester, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press Amherst and Boston in association with American Antiquarian Society, 2005.

O'Loughlin, Elissa. “Wafers and wafer seals: History, manufacture, and conservation.” In The Paper Conservator Volume 20, 1996. Ed. Nancy Bell. 8-15.

Thornton, Tamara Plankins. Handwriting in America: A Cultural History . New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996.

Washington, George. George Washington Papers , Series 1, Exercise Books, Diaries, and Surveys -99, Subseries 1A, Exercise Books -1747: School Copy Book, Volume 1. 1745,

Watts, Thomas. An Essay on the Proper Method for Forming the Man of Business . London, 1716, .

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The heart of the eighteenth century Enlightenment is the loosely organized activity of prominent French thinkers of the mid-decades of the eighteenth century, the so-called “ philosophes ”(e.g., Voltaire, D’Alembert, Diderot, Montesquieu). The philosophes constituted an informal society of men of letters who collaborated on a loosely defined project of Enlightenment exemplified by the project of the Encyclopedia (see below 1.5). However, there are noteworthy centers of Enlightenment outside of France as well. There is a renowned Scottish Enlightenment (key figures are Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume, Thomas Reid), a German Enlightenment ( die Aufklärung , key figures of which include Christian Wolff, Moses Mendelssohn, G.E. Lessing and Immanuel Kant), and there are also other hubs of Enlightenment and Enlightenment thinkers scattered throughout Europe and America in the eighteenth century.

What makes for the unity of such tremendously diverse thinkers under the label of “Enlightenment”? For the purposes of this entry, the Enlightenment is conceived broadly. D’Alembert, a leading figure of the French Enlightenment, characterizes his eighteenth century, in the midst of it, as “the century of philosophy par excellence ”, because of the tremendous intellectual and scientific progress of the age, but also because of the expectation of the age that philosophy (in the broad sense of the time, which includes the natural and social sciences) would dramatically improve human life. Guided by D’Alembert’s characterization of his century, the Enlightenment is conceived here as having its primary origin in the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. The rise of the new science progressively undermines not only the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos, but also the set of presuppositions that had served to constrain and guide philosophical inquiry in the earlier times. The dramatic success of the new science in explaining the natural world promotes philosophy from a handmaiden of theology, constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles. Taking as the core of the Enlightenment the aspiration for intellectual progress, and the belief in the power of such progress to improve human society and individual lives, this entry includes descriptions of relevant aspects of the thought of earlier thinkers, such as Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, Bayle, Leibniz, and Spinoza, thinkers whose contributions are indispensable to understanding the eighteenth century as “the century of philosophy par excellence ”.

The Enlightenment is often associated with its political revolutions and ideals, especially the French Revolution of 1789. The energy created and expressed by the intellectual foment of Enlightenment thinkers contributes to the growing wave of social unrest in France in the eighteenth century. The social unrest comes to a head in the violent political upheaval which sweeps away the traditionally and hierarchically structured ancien régime (the monarchy, the privileges of the nobility, the political power of the Catholic Church). The French revolutionaries meant to establish in place of the ancien régime a new reason-based order instituting the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality. Though the Enlightenment, as a diverse intellectual and social movement, has no definite end, the devolution of the French Revolution into the Terror in the 1790s, corresponding, as it roughly does, with the end of the eighteenth century and the rise of opposed movements, such as Romanticism, can serve as a convenient marker of the end of the Enlightenment, conceived as an historical period.

For Enlightenment thinkers themselves, however, the Enlightenment is not an historical period, but a process of social, psychological or spiritual development, unbound to time or place. Immanuel Kant defines “enlightenment” in his famous contribution to debate on the question in an essay entitled “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), as humankind’s release from its self-incurred immaturity; “immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” Expressing convictions shared among Enlightenment thinkers of widely divergent doctrines, Kant identifies enlightenment with the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one’s own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act. Enlightenment philosophers from across the geographical and temporal spectrum tend to have a great deal of confidence in humanity’s intellectual powers, both to achieve systematic knowledge of nature and to serve as an authoritative guide in practical life. This confidence is generally paired with suspicion or hostility toward other forms or carriers of authority (such as tradition, superstition, prejudice, myth and miracles), insofar as these are seen to compete with the authority of one’s own reason and experience. Enlightenment philosophy tends to stand in tension with established religion, insofar as the release from self-incurred immaturity in this age, daring to think for oneself, awakening one’s intellectual powers, generally requires opposing the role of established religion in directing thought and action. The faith of the Enlightenment – if one may call it that – is that the process of enlightenment, of becoming progressively self-directed in thought and action through the awakening of one’s intellectual powers, leads ultimately to a better, more fulfilled human existence.

This entry describes the main tendencies of Enlightenment thought in the following main sections: (1) The True: Science, Epistemology, and Metaphysics in the Enlightenment; (2) The Good: Political Theory, Ethical Theory and Religion in the Enlightenment; (3) The Beautiful: Aesthetics in the Enlightenment.

1.1 Rationalism and the Enlightenment

1.2 empiricism and the enlightenment, 1.3 skepticism in the enlightenment, 1.4 science of man and subjectivism in the enlightenment, 1.5 emerging sciences and the encyclopedia, 2.1 political theory, 2.2 ethical theory, 2.3 religion and the enlightenment, 3.1 french classicism and german rationalism, 3.2 empiricism and subjectivism, 3.3 late enlightenment aesthetics, other internet resources, related entries, 1. the true: science, epistemology and metaphysics in the enlightenment.

In this era dedicated to human progress, the advancement of the natural sciences is regarded as the main exemplification of, and fuel for, such progress. Isaac Newton’s epochal accomplishment in his Principia Mathematica (1687), which, very briefly described, consists in the comprehension of a diversity of physical phenomena – in particular the motions of heavenly bodies, together with the motions of sublunary bodies – in few relatively simple, universally applicable, mathematical laws, was a great stimulus to the intellectual activity of the eighteenth century and served as a model and inspiration for the researches of a number of Enlightenment thinkers. Newton’s system strongly encourages the Enlightenment conception of nature as an orderly domain governed by strict mathematical-dynamical laws and the conception of ourselves as capable of knowing those laws and of plumbing the secrets of nature through the exercise of our unaided faculties. – The conception of nature, and of how we know it, changes significantly with the rise of modern science. It belongs centrally to the agenda of Enlightenment philosophy to contribute to the new knowledge of nature, and to provide a metaphysical framework within which to place and interpret this new knowledge.

René Descartes’ rationalist system of philosophy is one of the pillars on which Enlightenment thought rests. Descartes (1596–1650) undertakes to establish the sciences upon a secure metaphysical foundation. The famous method of doubt Descartes employs for this purpose exemplifies (in part through exaggerating) an attitude characteristic of the Enlightenment. According to Descartes, the investigator in foundational philosophical research ought to doubt all propositions that can be doubted. The investigator determines whether a proposition is dubitable by attempting to construct a possible scenario under which it is false. In the domain of fundamental scientific (philosophical) research, no other authority but one’s own conviction is to be trusted, and not one’s own conviction either, until it is subjected to rigorous skeptical questioning. With his method, Descartes casts doubt upon the senses as authoritative source of knowledge. He finds that God and the immaterial soul are both better known, on the basis of innate ideas, than objects of the senses. Through his famous doctrine of the dualism of mind and body, that mind and body are two distinct substances, each with its own essence, the material world (allegedly) known through the senses becomes denominated as an “external” world, insofar as it is external to the ideas with which one immediately communes in one’s consciousness. Descartes’ investigation thus establishes one of the central epistemological problems, not only of the Enlightenment, but also of modernity: the problem of objectivity in our empirical knowledge. If our evidence for the truth of propositions about extra-mental material reality is always restricted to mental content, content before the mind, how can we ever be certain that the extra-mental reality is not other than we represent it as being? Descartes’ solution depends on our having secured prior and certain knowledge of God. In fact, Descartes argues that all human knowledge (not only knowledge of the material world through the senses) depends on metaphysical knowledge of God.

Despite Descartes’ grounding of all scientific knowledge in metaphysical knowledge of God, his system contributes significantly to the advance of natural science in the period. He attacks the long-standing assumptions of the scholastic-aristotelians whose intellectual dominance stood in the way of the development of the new science; he developed a conception of matter that enabled mechanical explanation of physical phenomena; and he developed some of the fundamental mathematical resources – in particular, a way to employ algebraic equations to solve geometrical problems – that enabled the physical domain to be explained with precise, simple mathematical formulae. Furthermore, his grounding of physics, and all knowledge, in a relatively simple and elegant rationalist metaphysics provides a model of a rigorous and complete secular system of knowledge. Though major Enlightenment thinkers (for example Voltaire in his Letters on the English Nation , 1734) embrace Newton’s physical system in preference to Descartes’, Newton’s system itself depends on Descartes’ earlier work, a dependence to which Newton himself attests.

Cartesian philosophy also ignites various controversies in the latter decades of the seventeenth century that provide the context of intellectual tumult out of which the Enlightenment springs. Among these controversies are the following: Are mind and body really two distinct sorts of substances, and if so, what is the nature of each, and how are they related to each other, both in the human being (which presumably “has” both a mind and a body) and in a unified world system? If matter is inert (as Descartes claims), what can be the source of motion and the nature of causality in the physical world? And of course the various epistemological problems: the problem of objectivity, the role of God in securing our knowledge, the doctrine of innate ideas, and others.

Baruch Spinoza’s systematic rationalist metaphysics, which he develops in his Ethics (1677) in part in response to problems in the Cartesian system, is also an important basis for Enlightenment thought. Spinoza develops, in contrast to Cartesian dualism, an ontological monism according to which there is only one substance, God or nature, with two attributes, corresponding to mind and body. Spinoza’s denial, on the basis of strict philosophical reasoning, of the existence of a transcendent supreme being, his identification of God with nature, gives strong impetus to the strands of atheism and naturalism that thread through Enlightenment philosophy. Spinoza’s rationalist principles also lead him to assert a strict determinism and to deny any role to final causes or teleology in explanation. (See Israel 2001.)

The rationalist metaphysics of Leibniz (1646–1716) is also foundational for the Enlightenment, particularly the German Enlightenment ( die Aufklärung ), one prominent expression of which is the Leibnizian rationalist system of Christian Wolff (1679–1754). Leibniz articulates, and places at the head of metaphysics, the great rationalist principle, the principle of sufficient reason, which states that everything that exists has a sufficient reason for its existence. This principle exemplifies the characteristic conviction of the Enlightenment that the universe is thoroughly rationally intelligible. The question arises of how this principle itself can be known or grounded. Wolff attempts to derive it from the logical principle of non-contradiction (in his First Philosophy or Ontology , 1730). Criticism of this alleged derivation gives rise to the general question of how formal principles of logic can possibly serve to ground substantive knowledge of reality. Whereas Leibniz exerts his influence through scattered writings on various topics, some of which elaborate plans for a systematic metaphysics which are never executed by Leibniz himself, Wolff exerts his influence on the German Enlightenment through his development of a rationalist system of knowledge in which he attempts to demonstrate all the propositions of science from first principles, known a priori.

Wolff’s rationalist metaphysics is characteristic of the Enlightenment by virtue of the pretensions of human reason within it, not by reason’s success in establishing its claims. Much the same could be said of the great rationalist philosophers of the seventeenth century. Through their articulation of the ideal of scientia, of a complete science of reality, composed of propositions derived demonstratively from a priori first principles, these philosophers exert great influence on the Enlightenment. But they fail, rather spectacularly, to realize this ideal. To the contrary, what they bequeath to the eighteenth century is metaphysics, in the words of Kant, as “a battlefield of endless controversies.” However, the controversies themselves – regarding the nature of God, mind, matter, substance, cause, et cetera, and the relations of each of these to the others – provide tremendous fuel to Enlightenment thought.

Despite the confidence in and enthusiasm for human reason in the Enlightenment – it is sometimes called “the Age of Reason” – the rise of empiricism, both in the practice of science and in the theory of knowledge, is characteristic of the period. The enthusiasm for reason in the Enlightenment is primarily not for the faculty of reason as an independent source of knowledge, which is embattled in the period, but rather for the human cognitive faculties generally; the Age of Reason contrasts with an age of religious faith, not with an age of sense experience. Though the great seventeenth century rationalist metaphysical systems of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz exert tremendous influence on philosophy in the Enlightenment; moreover, and though the eighteenth-century Enlightenment has a rationalist strain (perhaps best exemplified by the system of Christian Wolff), nevertheless, that the Encyclopedia of Diderot and D’Alembert is dedicated to three empiricists (Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton), signals the ascendency of empiricism in the period.

If the founder of the rationalist strain of the Enlightenment is Descartes, then the founder of the empiricist strain is Francis Bacon (1561–1626). Though Bacon’s work belongs to the Renaissance, the revolution he undertook to effect in the sciences inspires and influences Enlightenment thinkers. The Enlightenment, as the age in which experimental natural science matures and comes into its own, admires Bacon as “the father of experimental philosophy.” Bacon’s revolution (enacted in, among other works, The New Organon , 1620) involves conceiving the new science as (1) founded on empirical observation and experimentation; (2) arrived at through the method of induction; and (3) as ultimately aiming at, and as confirmed by, enhanced practical capacities (hence the Baconian motto, “knowledge is power”).

Of these elements of Bacon’s revolution, the point about method deserves special emphasis. Isaac Newton’s work, which stands as the great exemplar of the accomplishments of natural science for the eighteenth century, is, like Bacon’s, based on the inductive method. Whereas rationalist of the seventeenth century tend to conceive of scientific knowledge of nature as consisting in a system in which statements expressing the observable phenomena of nature are deduced from first principles, known a priori, Newton’s method begins with the observed phenomena of nature and reduces its multiplicity to unity by induction, that is, by finding mathematical laws or principles from which the observed phenomena can be derived or explained. The evident success of Newton’s “bottom-up” procedure contrasts sharply with the seemingly endless and fruitless conflicts among philosophers regarding the meaning and validity of first principles of reason, and this contrast naturally favors the rise of the Newtonian (or Baconian) method of acquiring knowledge of nature in the eighteenth century.

The tendency of natural science toward progressive independence from metaphysics in the eighteenth century is correlated with this point about method. The rise of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries proceeds through its separation from the presuppositions, doctrines and methodology of theology; natural science in the eighteenth century proceeds to separate itself from metaphysics as well. Newton proves the capacity of natural science to succeed independently of a priori, clear and certain first principles. The characteristic Enlightenment suspicion of all allegedly authoritative claims the validity of which is obscure, which is directed first of all against religious dogmas, extends to the claims of metaphysics as well. While there are significant Enlightenment thinkers who are metaphysicians – again, one thinks of Christian Wolff – the general thrust of Enlightenment thought is anti-metaphysical.

John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) is another foundational text of the Enlightenment. A main source of its influence is the epistemological rigor that it displays, which is at least implicitly anti-metaphysical. Locke undertakes in this work to examine the human understanding in order to determine the limits of human knowledge; he thereby institutes a prominent pattern of Enlightenment epistemology. Locke finds the source of all our ideas, the ideas out of which human knowledge is constructed, in the senses and argues influentially against the rationalists’ doctrine of innate ideas. Locke’s sensationalism exerts great influence in the French Enlightenment, primarily through being taken up and radicalized by the philosophe , Abbé de Condillac. In the Treatise on Sensations (1754), Condillac attempts to explain how all human knowledge arises out of sense experience. Locke’s epistemology, as developed by Condillac and others, contributes greatly to the emerging science of psychology in the period.

Locke and Descartes both pursue a method in epistemology that brings with it the epistemological problem of objectivity. Both examine our knowledge by way of examining the ideas we encounter directly in our consciousness. This method comes to be called “the way of ideas”. Though neither for Locke nor for Descartes do all of our ideas represent their objects by way of resembling them (e.g., our idea of God does not represent God by virtue of resembling God), our alleged knowledge of our environment through the senses does depend largely on ideas that allegedly resemble external material objects. The way of ideas implies the epistemological problem of how we can know that these ideas do in fact resemble their objects. How can we be sure that these objects do not appear one way before the mind and exist in another way (or not at all) in reality outside the mind? George Berkeley, an empiricist philosopher influenced by John Locke, avoids the problem by asserting the metaphysics of idealism: the (apparently material) objects of perception are nothing but ideas before the mind. However, Berkeley’s idealism is less influential in, and characteristic of, the Enlightenment, than the opposing positions of materialism and Cartesian dualism. Thomas Reid, a prominent member of the Scottish Enlightenment, attacks the way of ideas and argues that the immediate objects of our (sense) perception are the common (material) objects in our environment, not ideas in our mind. Reid mounts his defense of naïve realism as a defense of common sense over against the doctrines of the philosophers. The defense of common sense, and the related idea that the results of philosophy ought to be of use to common people, are characteristic ideas of the Enlightenment, particularly pronounced in the Scottish Enlightenment.

Skepticism enjoys a remarkably strong place in Enlightenment philosophy, given that confidence in our intellectual capacities to achieve systematic knowledge of nature is a leading characteristic of the age. This oddity is at least softened by the point that much skepticism in the Enlightenment is merely methodological, a tool meant to serve science, rather than a position embraced on its own account. The instrumental role for skepticism is exemplified prominently in Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), in which Descartes employs radical skeptical doubt to attack prejudices derived from learning and from sense experience and to search out principles known with certainty which may serve as a secure foundation for a new system of knowledge. Given the negative, critical, suspicious attitude of the Enlightenment towards doctrines traditionally regarded as well founded, it is not surprising that Enlightenment thinkers employ skeptical tropes (drawn from the ancient skeptical tradition) to attack traditional dogmas in science, metaphysics and religion.

However, skepticism is not merely a methodological tool in the hands of Enlightenment thinkers. The skeptical cast of mind is one prominent manifestation of the Enlightenment spirit. The influence of Pierre Bayle, another founding figure of the Enlightenment, testifies to this. Bayle was a French Protestant, who, like many European philosophers of his time, was forced to live and work in politically liberal and tolerant Holland in order to avoid censorship and prison. Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697), a strange and wonderful book, exerts great influence on the age. The form of the book is intimidating: a biographical dictionary, with long scholarly entries on obscure figures in the history of culture, interrupted by long scholarly footnotes, which are in turn interrupted by further footnotes. Rarely has a work with such intimidating scholarly pretentions exerted such radical and liberating influence in the culture. It exerts this influence through its skeptical questioning of religious, metaphysical, and scientific dogmas. Bayle’s eclecticism and his tendency to follow arguments without pre-arranging their conclusions make it difficult to categorize his thought. It is the attitude of inquiry that Bayle displays, rather than any doctrine he espouses, that mark his as distinctively Enlightenment thought. He is fearless and presumptuous in questioning all manner of dogma. His attitude of inquiry resembles both that of Descartes’ meditator and that of the person undergoing enlightenment as Kant defines it, the attitude of coming to think for oneself, of daring to know. This epistemological attitude, as manifest in distrust of authority and reliance on one’s own capacity to judge, expresses the Enlightenment values of individualism and self-determination.

This skeptical/critical attitude underlies a significant tension in the age. While it is common to conceive of the Enlightenment as supplanting the authority of tradition and religious dogma with the authority of reason, in fact the Enlightenment is characterized by a crisis of authority regarding any belief. This is perhaps best illustrated with reference to David Hume’s skepticism, as developed in Book One of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40) and in his later Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding (1748). While one might take Hume’s skepticism to imply that he is an outlier with respect to the Enlightenment, it is more convincing to see Hume’s skepticism as a flowering of a crisis regarding authority in belief that is internal to the Enlightenment. Hume articulates a variety of skepticisms. His “skepticism with regard to the senses” is structured by the epistemological problem bound up with the way of ideas, described above. Hume also articulates skepticism with regard to reason in an argument that is anticipated by Bayle. Hume begins this argument by noting that, though rules or principles in demonstrative sciences are certain or infallible, given the fallibility of our faculties, our applications of such rules or principles in demonstrative inferences yield conclusions that cannot be regarded as certain or infallible. On reflection, our conviction in the conclusions of demonstrative reasoning must be qualified by an assessment of the likelihood that we made a mistake in our reasoning. Thus, Hume writes, “all knowledge degenerates into probability” ( Treatise , I.iv.i). Hume argues further that, given this degeneration, for any judgment, our assessment of the likelihood that we made a mistake, and the corresponding diminution of certainty in the conclusion, is another judgment about which we ought make a further assessment, which leads to a further diminution of certainty in our original conclusion, leading “at last [to] a total extinction of belief and evidence”. Hume also famously questions the justification of inductive reasoning and causal reasoning. According to Hume’s argument, since in causal reasoning we take our past observations to serve as evidence for judgments regarding what will happen in relevantly similar circumstances in the future, causal reasoning depends on the assumption that the future course of nature will resemble the past; and there is no non-circular justification of this essential assumption. Hume concludes that we have no rational justification for our causal or inductive judgments. Hume’s skeptical arguments regarding causal reasoning are more radical than his skeptical questioning of reason as such, insofar as they call into question even experience itself as a ground for knowledge and implicitly challenge the credentials of Newtonian science itself, the very pride of the Enlightenment. The question implicitly raised by Hume’s powerful skeptical arguments is whether any epistemological authority at all can withstand critical scrutiny. The Enlightenment begins by unleashing skepticism in attacking limited, circumscribed targets, but once the skeptical genie is out of the bottle, it becomes difficult to maintain conviction in any authority. Thus, the despairing attitude that Hume famously expresses in the conclusion to Book One of the Treatise , as the consequence of his epistemological inquiry, while it clashes with the self-confident and optimistic attitude we associate with the Enlightenment, in fact reflects an essential possibility in a distinctive Enlightenment problematic regarding authority in belief.

Though Hume finds himself struggling with skepticism in the conclusion of Book One of the Treatise , the project of the work as he outlines it is not to advance a skeptical viewpoint, but to establish a science of the mind. Hume is one of many Enlightenment thinkers who aspire to be the “Newton of the mind”; he aspires to establish the basic laws that govern the elements of the human mind in its operations. Alexander Pope’s famous couplet in An Essay on Man (1733) (“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan/ The proper study of mankind is man”) expresses well the intense interest humanity gains in itself within the context of the Enlightenment, as a partial substitute for its traditional interest in God and the transcendent domain. Just as the sun replaces the earth as the center of our cosmos in Copernicus’ cosmological system, so humanity itself replaces God at the center of humanity’s consciousness in the Enlightenment. Given the Enlightenment’s passion for science, the self-directed attention naturally takes the form of the rise of the scientific study of humanity in the period.

The enthusiasm for the scientific study of humanity in the period incorporates a tension or paradox concerning the place of humanity in the cosmos, as the cosmos is re-conceived in the context of Enlightenment philosophy and science. Newton’s success early in the Enlightenment of subsuming the phenomena of nature under universal laws of motion, expressed in simple mathematical formulae, encourages the conception of nature as a very complicated machine, whose parts are material and whose motions and properties are fully accounted for by deterministic causal laws. But if our conception of nature is of an exclusively material domain governed by deterministic, mechanical laws, and if we at the same time deny the place of the supernatural in the cosmos, then how does humanity itself fit into the cosmos? On the one hand, the achievements of the natural sciences in general are the great pride of the Enlightenment, manifesting the excellence of distinctively human capacities. The pride and self-assertiveness of humanity in the Enlightenment expresses itself, among other ways, in humanity’s making the study of itself its central concern. On the other hand, the study of humanity in the Enlightenment typically yields a portrait of us that is the opposite of flattering or elevating. Instead of being represented as occupying a privileged place in nature, as made in the image of God, humanity is represented typically in the Enlightenment as a fully natural creature, devoid of free will, of an immortal soul, and of a non-natural faculty of intelligence or reason. The very title of J.O. de La Mettrie’s Man a Machine (1748), for example, seems designed to deflate humanity’s self-conception, and in this respect it is characteristic of the Enlightenment “science of man”. It is true of a number of works of the Enlightenment, perhaps especially works in the more radical French Enlightenment – notable here are Helvétius’s Of the Spirit (1758) and Baron d’Holbach’s System of Nature (1770) – that they at once express the remarkable self-assertiveness of humanity characteristic of the Enlightenment in their scientific aspirations while at the same time painting a portrait of humanity that dramatically deflates its traditional self-image as occupying a privileged position in nature.

The methodology of epistemology in the period reflects a similar tension. Given the epistemological role of Descartes’ famous “ cogito, ergo sum ” in his system of knowledge, one might see Descartes’ epistemology as already marking the transition from an epistemology privileging knowledge of God to one that privileges self-knowledge instead. However, in Descartes’ epistemology, it remains true that knowledge of God serves as the necessary foundation for all human knowledge. Hume’s Treatise displays such a re-orientation less ambiguously. As noted, Hume means his work to comprise a science of the mind or of man. In the Introduction, Hume describes the science of man as effectively a foundation for all the sciences since all sciences “lie under the cognizance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties.” In other words, since all science is human knowledge, scientific knowledge of humanity is the foundation of the sciences. Hume’s placing the science of man at the foundation of all the sciences both exemplifies the privilege afforded to “mankind’s study of man” within the Enlightenment and provides an interpretation of it. But Hume’s methodological privileging of humanity in the system of sciences contrasts sharply with what he says in the body of his science about humanity. In Hume’s science of man, reason as a faculty of knowledge is skeptically attacked and marginalized; reason is attributed to other animals as well; belief is shown to be grounded in custom and habit; and free will is denied. So, even as knowledge of humanity supplants knowledge of God as the keystone of the system of knowledge, the scientific perspective on humanity starkly challenges humankind’s self-conception as occupying a privileged position in the order of nature.

Immanuel Kant explicitly enacts a revolution in epistemology modeled on the Copernican in astronomy. As characteristic of Enlightenment epistemology, Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781, second edition 1787) undertakes both to determine the limits of our knowledge, and at the same time to provide a foundation of scientific knowledge of nature, and he attempts to do this by examining our human faculties of knowledge critically. Even as he draws strict limits to rational knowledge, he attempts to defend reason as a faculty of knowledge, as playing a necessary role in natural science, in the face of skeptical challenges that reason faces in the period. According to Kant, scientific knowledge of nature is not merely knowledge of what in fact happens in nature, but knowledge of the causal laws of nature according to which what in fact happens must happen. But how is knowledge of necessary causal connection in nature possible? Hume’s investigation of the idea of cause had made clear that we cannot know causal necessity through experience; experience teaches us at most what in fact happens, not what must happen. In addition, Kant’s own earlier critique of principles of rationalism had convinced him that the principles of (“general”) logic also cannot justify knowledge of real necessary connections (in nature); the formal principle of non-contradiction can ground at best the deduction of one proposition from another, but not the claim that one property or event must follow from another in the course of nature. The generalized epistemological problem Kant addresses in the Critique of Pure Reason is: how is science possible (including natural science, mathematics, metaphysics), given that all such knowledge must be (or include) knowledge of real, substantive (not merely logical or formal) necessities. Put in the terms Kant defines, the problem is: how is synthetic, a priori knowledge possible?

According to Kant’s Copernican Revolution in epistemology addressed to this problem, objects must conform themselves to human knowledge rather than knowledge to objects. Certain cognitive forms lie ready in the human mind – prominent examples are the pure concepts of substance and cause and the forms of intuition, space and time; given sensible representations must conform themselves to these forms in order for human experience (as empirical knowledge of nature) to be possible at all. We can acquire scientific knowledge of nature because we constitute it a priori according to certain cognitive forms; for example, we can know nature as a causally ordered domain because we originally synthesize a priori the given manifold of sensibility according to the category of causality, which has its source in the human mind.

Kant saves rational knowledge of nature by limiting rational knowledge to nature. According to Kant’s argument, we can have rational knowledge only of the domain of possible experience, not of supersensible objects such as God and the soul. Moreover Kant’s solution brings with it a kind of idealism: given the mind’s role in constituting objects of experience, we know objects only as appearances , only as they appear according to our faculties, not as they are in themselves. This is the subjectivism of Kant’s epistemology. Kant’s epistemology exemplifies Enlightenment thought by replacing the theocentric conception of knowledge of the rationalist tradition with an anthropocentric conception.

However, Kant means his system to make room for humanity’s practical and religious aspirations toward the transcendent as well. According to Kant’s idealism, the realm of nature is limited to a realm of appearances, and we can intelligibly think supersensible objects such as God, freedom and the soul, though we cannot know them. Through the postulation of a realm of unknowable noumena (things in themselves) over against the realm of nature as a realm of appearances, Kant manages to make place for practical concepts that are central to our understanding of ourselves even while grounding our scientific knowledge of nature as a domain governed by deterministic causal laws. Though Kant’s idealism is highly controversial from its initial publication, a main point in its favor, according to Kant himself, is that it reconciles, in a single coherent tension, the main tension between the Enlightenment’s conception of nature, as ordered according to deterministic causal laws, and the Enlightenment’s conception of ourselves, as morally free, as having dignity, and as perfectible.

The commitment to careful observation and description of phenomena as the starting point of science, and then the success at explaining and accounting for observed phenomena through the method of induction, naturally leads to the development of new sciences for new domains in the Enlightenment. Many of the human and social sciences have their origins in the eighteenth century (e.g., history, anthropology, aesthetics, psychology, economics, even sociology), though most are only formally established as autonomous disciplines later. The emergence of new sciences is aided by the development of new scientific tools, such as models for probabilistic reasoning, a kind of reasoning that gains new respect and application in the period. Despite the multiplication of sciences in the period, the ideal remains to comprehend the diversity of our scientific knowledge as a unified system of science; however, this ideal of unity is generally taken as regulative, as an ideal to emerge in the ever-receding end-state of science, rather than as enforced from the beginning by regimenting science under a priori principles.

As exemplifying these and other tendencies of the Enlightenment, one work deserves special mention: the Encyclopedia , edited by Denis Diderot and Jean La Rond d’Alembert. The Encyclopedia (subtitled: “ systematic dictionary of the sciences, arts and crafts ”) was published in 28 volumes (17 of text, 11 of plates) over 21 years (1751–1772), and consists of over 70,000 articles, contributed by over 140 contributors, among them many of the luminaries of the French Enlightenment. The work aims to provide a compendium of existing human knowledge to be transmitted to subsequent generations, a transmission intended to contribute to the progress and dissemination of human knowledge and to a positive transformation of human society. The orientation of the Encyclopedia is decidedly secular and implicitly anti-authoritarian. Accordingly, the French state of the ancien régime censors the project, and it is completed only through the persistence of Diderot. The collaborative nature of the project, especially in the context of state opposition, contributes significantly to the formation of a shared sense of purpose among the wide variety of intellectuals who belong to the French Enlightenment. The knowledge contained in the Encyclopedia is self-consciously social both in its production – insofar as it is immediately the product of what the title page calls “a society of men of letters” – and in its address – insofar as it is primarily meant as an instrument for the education and improvement of society. It is a striking feature of the Encyclopedia , and one by virtue of which it exemplifies the Baconian conception of science characteristic of the period, that its entries cover the whole range and scope of knowledge, from the most abstract theoretical to the most practical, mechanical and technical.

2. The Good: Political Theory, Ethical Theory and Religion in the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is most identified with its political accomplishments. The era is marked by three political revolutions, which together lay the basis for modern, republican, constitutional democracies: The English Revolution (1688), the American Revolution (1775–83), and the French Revolution (1789–99). The success at explaining and understanding the natural world encourages the Enlightenment project of re-making the social/political world, in accord with the models we allegedly find in our reason. Enlightenment philosophers find that the existing social and political orders do not withstand critical scrutiny. Existing political and social authority is shrouded in religious myth and mystery and founded on obscure traditions. The criticism of existing institutions is supplemented with the positive work of constructing in theory the model of institutions as they ought to be. We owe to this period the basic model of government founded upon the consent of the governed; the articulation of the political ideals of freedom and equality and the theory of their institutional realization; the articulation of a list of basic individual human rights to be respected and realized by any legitimate political system; the articulation and promotion of toleration of religious diversity as a virtue to be respected in a well ordered society; the conception of the basic political powers as organized in a system of checks and balances; and other now-familiar features of western democracies. However, for all the enduring accomplishments of Enlightenment political philosophy, it is not clear that human reason proves powerful enough to put a concrete, positive authoritative ideal in place of the objects of its criticism. As in the epistemological domain, reason shows its power more convincingly in criticizing authorities than in establishing them. Here too the question of the limits of reason is one of the main philosophical legacies of the period. These limits are arguably vividly illustrated by the course of the French Revolution. The explicit ideals of the French Revolution are the Enlightenment ideals of individual freedom and equality; but, as the revolutionaries attempt to devise rational, secular institutions to put in place of those they have violently overthrown, eventually they have recourse to violence and terror in order to control and govern the people. The devolution of the French Revolution into the Reign of Terror is perceived by many as proving the emptiness and hypocrisy of Enlightenment reason, and is one of the main factors which account for the end of the Enlightenment as an historical period.

The political revolutions of the Enlightenment, especially the French and the American, were informed and guided to a significant extent by prior political philosophy in the period. Though Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan (1651), defends the absolute power of the political sovereign, and is to that extent opposed to the revolutionaries and reformers in England, this work is a founding work of Enlightenment political theory. Hobbes’ work originates the modern social contract theory, which incorporates Enlightenment conceptions of the relation of the individual to the state. According to the general social contract model, political authority is grounded in an agreement (often understood as ideal, rather than real) among individuals, each of whom aims in this agreement to advance his rational self-interest by establishing a common political authority over all. Thus, according to the general contract model (though this is more clear in later contract theorists such as Locke and Rousseau than in Hobbes himself), political authority is grounded not in conquest, natural or divinely instituted hierarchy, or in obscure myths and traditions, but rather in the rational consent of the governed. In initiating this model, Hobbes takes a naturalistic, scientific approach to the question of how political society ought to be organized (against the background of a clear-eyed, unsentimental conception of human nature), and thus decisively influences the Enlightenment process of secularization and rationalization in political and social philosophy.

Baruch Spinoza also greatly contributes to the development of Enlightenment political philosophy in its early years. The metaphysical doctrines of the Ethics (1677) lay the groundwork for his influence on the age. Spinoza’s arguments against Cartesian dualism and in favor of substance monism, the claim in particular that there can only be one substance, God or nature, was taken to have radical implications in the domains of politics, ethics and religion throughout the period. Spinoza’s employment of philosophical reason leads to the denial of the existence of a transcendent, creator, providential, law-giving God; this establishes the opposition between the teachings of philosophy, on the one hand, and the traditional orienting practical beliefs (moral, religious, political) of the people, on the other hand, an opposition that is one important aspect of the culture of the Enlightenment. In his main political work, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1677), Spinoza, building on his rationalist naturalism, opposes superstition, argues for toleration and the subordination of religion to the state, and pronounces in favor of qualified democracy. Liberalism is perhaps the most characteristic political philosophy of the Enlightenment, and Spinoza, in this text primarily, is one of its originators.

However, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1690) is the classical source of modern liberal political theory. In his First Treatise of Government , Locke attacks Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (1680), which epitomizes the sort of political theory the Enlightenment opposes. Filmer defends the right of kings to exercise absolute authority over their subjects on the basis of the claim that they inherit the authority God vested in Adam at creation. Though Locke’s assertion of the natural freedom and equality of human beings in the Second Treatise is starkly and explicitly opposed to Filmer’s view, it is striking that the cosmology underlying Locke’s assertions is closer to Filmer’s than to Spinoza’s. According to Locke, in order to understand the nature and source of legitimate political authority, we have to understand our relations in the state of nature. Drawing upon the natural law tradition, Locke argues that it is evident to our natural reason that we are all absolutely subject to our Lord and Creator, but that, in relation to each other, we exist naturally in a state of equality “wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another” ( Second Treatise , §4). We also exist naturally in a condition of freedom, insofar as we may do with ourselves and our possessions as we please, within the constraints of the fundamental law of nature. The law of nature “teaches all mankind … that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (§6). That we are governed in our natural condition by such a substantive moral law, legislated by God and known to us through our natural reason, implies that the state of nature is not Hobbes’ war of all against all. However, since there is lacking any human authority over all to judge of disputes and enforce the law, it is a condition marred by “inconveniencies”, in which possession of natural freedom, equality and possessions is insecure. According to Locke, we rationally quit this natural condition by contracting together to set over ourselves a political authority, charged with promulgating and enforcing a single, clear set of laws, for the sake of guaranteeing our natural rights, liberties and possessions. The civil, political law, founded ultimately upon the consent of the governed, does not cancel the natural law, according to Locke, but merely serves to draw that law closer. “[T]he law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men” (§135). Consequently, when established political power violates that law, the people are justified in overthrowing it. Locke’s argument for the right to revolt against a government that opposes the purposes for which legitimate government is taken by some to justify the political revolution in the context of which he writes (the English revolution) and, almost a hundred years later, by others to justify the American revolution as well.

Though Locke’s liberalism has been tremendously influential, his political theory is founded on doctrines of natural law and religion that are not nearly as evident as Locke assumes. Locke’s reliance on the natural law tradition is typical of Enlightenment political and moral theory. According to the natural law tradition, as the Enlightenment makes use of it, we can know through the use of our unaided reason that we all – all human beings, universally – stand in particular moral relations to each other. The claim that we can apprehend through our unaided reason a universal moral order exactly because moral qualities and relations (in particular human freedom and equality) belong to the nature of things, is attractive in the Enlightenment for obvious reasons. However, as noted above, the scientific apprehension of nature in the period does not support, and in fact opposes, the claim that the alleged moral qualities and relations (or, indeed, that any moral qualities and relations) are natural . According to a common Enlightenment assumption, as humankind clarifies the laws of nature through the advance of natural science and philosophy, the true moral and political order will be revealed with it. This view is expressed explicitly by the philosophe Marquis de Condorcet, in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (published posthumously in 1795 and which, perhaps better than any other work, lays out the paradigmatically Enlightenment view of history of the human race as a continual progress to perfection). But, in fact, advance in knowledge of the laws of nature in the science of the period does not help with discernment of a natural political or moral order. This asserted relationship between natural scientific knowledge and the political and moral order is under great stress already in the Enlightenment. With respect to Lockean liberalism, though his assertion of the moral and political claims (natural freedom, equality, et cetera) continues to have considerable force for us, the grounding of these claims in a religious cosmology does not. The question of how to ground our claims to natural freedom and equality is one of the main philosophical legacies of the Enlightenment.

The rise and development of liberalism in Enlightenment political thought has many relations with the rise of the mercantile class (the bourgeoisie) and the development of what comes to be called “civil society”, the society characterized by work and trade in pursuit of private property. Locke’s Second Treatise contributes greatly to the project of articulating a political philosophy to serve the interests and values of this ascending class. Locke claims that the end or purpose of political society is the preservation and protection of property (though he defines property broadly to include not only external property but life and liberties as well). According to Locke’s famous account, persons acquire rightful ownership in external things that are originally given to us all by God as a common inheritance, independently of the state and prior to its involvement, insofar as we “mix our labor with them”. The civil freedom that Locke defines, as something protected by the force of political laws, comes increasingly to be interpreted as the freedom to trade, to exchange without the interference of governmental regulation. Within the context of the Enlightenment, economic freedom is a salient interpretation of the individual freedom highly valued in the period. Adam Smith, a prominent member of the Scottish Enlightenment, describes in his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) some of the laws of civil society, as a sphere distinct from political society as such, and thus contributes significantly to the founding of political economy (later called merely “economics”). His is one of many voices in the Enlightenment advocating for free trade and for minimal government regulation of markets. The trading house floor, in which people of various nationalities, languages, cultures, religions come together and trade, each in pursuit of his own self-interest, but, through this pursuit, supplying the wants of their respective nations and increasing its wealth, represents for some Enlightenment thinkers the benign, peaceful, universal rational order that they wish to see replace the violent, confessional strife that characterized the then-recent past of Europe.

However, the liberal conception of the government as properly protecting economic freedom of citizens and private property comes into conflict in the Enlightenment with the value of democracy. James Madison confronts this tension in the context of arguing for the adoption of the U.S. Constitution (in his Federalist #10). Madison argues that popular government (pure democracy) is subject to the evil of factions; in a pure democracy, a majority bound together by a private interest, relative to the whole, has the capacity to impose its particular will on the whole. The example most on Madison’s mind is that those without property (the many) may seek to bring about governmental re-distribution of the property of the propertied class (the few), perhaps in the name of that other Enlightenment ideal, equality. If, as in Locke’s theory, the government’s protection of an individual’s freedom is encompassed within the general end of protecting a person’s property, then, as Madison argues, the proper form of the government cannot be pure democracy, and the will of the people must be officially determined in some other way than by directly polling the people.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political theory, as presented in his On the Social Contract (1762), presents a contrast to the Lockean liberal model. Though commitment to the political ideals of freedom and equality constitutes a common ground for Enlightenment political philosophy, it is not clear not only how these values have a home in nature as Enlightenment science re-conceives it, but also how concretely to interpret each of these ideals and how properly to balance them against each other. Contrary to Madison, Rousseau argues that direct (pure) democracy is the only form of government in which human freedom can be realized. Human freedom, according to Rousseau’s interpretation, is possible only through governance according to what he calls “the general will,” which is the will of the body politic, formed through the original contract, concretely determined in an assembly in which all citizens participate. Rousseau’s account intends to avert the evils of factions by structural elements of the original contract. The contract consists in the self-alienation by each associate of all rights and possessions to the body politic. Because each alienates all, each is an equal member of the body politic, and the terms and conditions are the same for all. The emergence of factions is avoided insofar as the good of each citizen is, and is understood to be, equally (because wholly) dependent on the general will. Legislation supports this identification with the general will by preserving the original equality established in the contract, prominently through maintaining a measure of economic equality. Rousseau’s account of the ideal relation of the individual citizen to the state differs from Locke’s; in Rousseau’s account, the individual must be actively engaged in political life in order to maintain the identification of his supremely authoritative will with the general will, whereas in Locke the emphasis is on the limits of governmental authority with respect to the expressions of the individual will. Though Locke’s liberal model is more representative of the Enlightenment in general, Rousseau’s political theory, which in some respects presents a revived classical model modified within the context of Enlightenment values, in effect poses many of the enduring questions regarding the meaning and interpretation of political freedom and equality within the modern state.

Both Madison and Rousseau, like most political thinkers of the period, are influenced by Baron de Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748), which is one of the founding texts of modern political theory. Though Montesquieu’s treatise belongs to the tradition of liberalism in political theory, given his scientific approach to social, legal and political systems, his influence extends beyond this tradition. Montesquieu argues that the system of legislation for a people varies appropriately with the particular circumstances of the people. He provides specific analysis of how climate, fertility of the soil, population size, et cetera, affect legislation. He famously distinguishes three main forms of governments: republics (which can either be democratic or aristocratic), monarchies and despotisms. He describes leading characteristics of each. His argument that functional democracies require the population to possess civic virtue in high measure, a virtue that consists in valuing public good above private interest, influences later Enlightenment theorists, including both Rousseau and Madison. He describes the threat of factions to which Madison and Rousseau respond in different (indeed opposite) ways. He provides the basic structure and justification for the balance of political powers that Madison later incorporates into the U.S. Constitution.

It is striking how unenlightened many of the Enlightenment’s celebrated thinkers are concerning issues of race and of gender (regarding race, see Race and Enlightenment: A Reader , edited by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze). For all the public concern with the allegedly universal “rights of man” in the Enlightenment, the rights of women and of non-white people are generally overlooked in the period. (Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is a noteworthy exception.) When Enlightenment thinkers do turn their attention to the social standing of women or of non-white people, they tend to spout unreasoned prejudice. Moreover, while the philosophies of the Enlightenment generally aspire or pretend to universal truth, unattached to particular time, place or culture, Enlightenment writings are rife with rank ethno- and Eurocentrism, often explicit.

In the face of such tensions within the Enlightenment, one response is to affirm the power of the Enlightenment to improve humanity and society long beyond the end of the eighteenth century, indeed, down to the present day and into the future. This response embraces the Enlightenment and interprets more recent emancipation movements and achievement of recognition of the rights and dignity of traditionally oppressed and marginalized groups as expressions of Enlightenment ideals and aspirations. Critics of the Enlightenment respond differently to such tensions. Critics see them as symptoms of disorder, ideology, perversity, futility or falsehood that afflict the very core of the Enlightenment itself. (See James Schmidt’s “What Enlightenment Project?” for discussion of critics of the Enlightenment.) Famously, Adorno and Horkheimer interpret Nazi death camps as the result of “the dialectic of the Enlightenment”, as what historically becomes of the supremacy of instrumental reason asserted in the Enlightenment. As another example, we may point to some post-modern feminists, who argue, in opposition to the liberal feminists who embrace broadly Enlightenment ideals and conceptions, that the essentialism and universalism associated with Enlightenment ideals are both false and intrinsically hostile to the aspirations to self-realization of women and of other traditionally oppressed groups. (See Strickland and the essays in Akkerman and Stuurman.) This entry is not the place to delineate strains of opposition to the Enlightenment, but it is worth noting that post-Enlightenment social and political struggles to achieve equality or recognition for traditionally marginalized or oppressed groups are sometimes self-consciously grounded in the Enlightenment and sometimes marked by explicit opposition to the Enlightenment’s conceptions or presuppositions.

Many of the leading issues and positions of contemporary philosophical ethics take shape within the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment in the West, ethical reflection begins from and orients itself around religious doctrines concerning God and the afterlife. The highest good of humanity, and, accordingly, the content and grounding of moral duties, are conceived in immediately religious terms. During the Enlightenment, this changes, certainly within philosophy, but to some significant degree, within the population of western society at large. As the processes of industrialization, urbanization, and dissemination of education advance in this period, happiness in this life, rather than union with God in the next, becomes the highest end for more and more people. Also, the violent religious wars that bloody Europe in the early modern period motivate the development of secular, this-worldly ethics, insofar as they indicate the failure of religious doctrines concerning God and the afterlife to establish a stable foundation for ethics. In the Enlightenment, philosophical thinkers confront the problem of developing ethical systems on a secular, broadly naturalistic basis for the first time since the rise of Christianity eclipsed the great classical ethical systems. However, the changes in our understanding of nature and cosmology, effected by modern natural science, make recourse to the systems of Plato and Aristotle problematic. The Platonic identification of the good with the real and the Aristotelian teleological understanding of natural things are both difficult to square with the Enlightenment conception of nature. The general philosophical problem emerges in the Enlightenment of how to understand the source and grounding of ethical duties, and how to conceive the highest good for human beings, within a secular, broadly naturalistic context, and within the context of a transformed understanding of the natural world.

In ethical thought, as in political theory, Hobbes’ thought is an important provocation in the Enlightenment. Hobbes understands what is good, as the end of human action, to be “whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire,” and evil to be “the object of his hate, and aversion,” “there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves” ( Leviathan , chapter 6). Hobbes’ conception of human beings as fundamentally motivated by their perception of what is in their own best interest implies the challenge, important for Enlightenment moral philosophy, to construct moral duties of justice and benevolence out of such limited materials. The basis of human action that Hobbes posits is immediately intelligible and even shared with other animals to some extent; a set of moral duties constructed on this basis would also be intelligible, de-mystified, and fit within the larger scheme of nature. Bernard Mandeville is sometimes grouped with Hobbes in the Enlightenment, especially by critics of them both, because he too, in his popular Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Public Benefits (1714), sees people as fundamentally motivated by their perceived self-interest, and then undertakes to tell a story about how moral virtue, which involves conquering one’s own appetite and serving the interests of others, can be understood to arise on this basis.

Samuel Clarke, an influential rationalist British thinker early in the Enlightenment, undertakes to show in his Discourse concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion (1706), against Hobbes, that the absolute difference between moral good and moral evil lies in the immediately discernible nature of things, independently of any compacts or positive legislation by God or human beings. Clarke writes that “in men’s dealing … one with another, it is undeniably more fit, absolutely and in the nature of the thing itself, that all men should endeavor to promote the universal good and welfare of all; than that all men should be continually contriving the ruin and destruction of all”. Likewise for the rest of what morality enjoins upon us. According to Clarke, that some actions (those we call morally good or required) are “fit to be done” and others not fit is grounded upon the immediately evident relations in which things stand to each other in nature, just as “the proportions of lines or numbers” are evident to the rational perception of a reasonable being. Similarly, Christian Wolff’s rationalist practical philosophy also grounds moral duties in an objective rational order. However, the objective quality on which moral requirements are grounded for Wolff is not the “fitness” of things to be done but rather their perfection. Wolff counts as a founder of the Aufklärung in part because of his attempted derivation of ethical duties from an order of perfection in things, discernable through reason, independently of divine commands.

Rationalist ethics so conceived faces the following obstacles in the Enlightenment. First, as implied above, it becomes increasingly implausible that the objective, mind-independent order is really as rationalist ethicists claim it to be. Second, even if the objective realm were ordered as the rationalist claims, it remains unclear how this order gives rise (on its own, as it were) to obligations binding on our wills. David Hume famously exposes the fallacy of deriving a prescriptive statement (that one ought to perform some action) from a description of how things stand in relation to each other in nature. Prima facie, there is a gap between the rationalist’s objective order and a set of prescriptions binding on our wills; if a supreme legislator must be re-introduced in order to make the conformity of our actions to that objective order binding on our wills, then the alleged existence of the objective moral order does not do the work the account asks of it in the first place.

Alongside the rationalist strand of ethical philosophy in the Enlightenment, there is also a very significant empiricist strand. Empirical accounts of moral virtue in the period are distinguished, both by grounding moral virtue on an empirical study of human nature, and by grounding cognition of moral duties and moral motivation in human sensibility, rather than in reason. The Third Earl of Shaftesbury, author of the influential work Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), is a founding figure of the empiricist strand. Shaftesbury, like Clarke, is provoked by Hobbes’ egoism to provide a non-egoistic account of moral virtue. Shaftesbury conceives the core notion of the goodness of things teleologically: something is good if it contributes to the well-being or furtherance of the system of which it is a part. Individual animals are members of species, and therefore they are good as such insofar as they contribute to the well-being of the species of which they are a part. Thus, the good of things, including human beings, for Shaftesbury as for Clarke, is an objective quality that is knowable through reason. However, though we can know what is good through reason, Shaftesbury maintains that reason alone is not sufficient to motivate human action. Shaftesbury articulates the structure of a distinctively human moral sensibility. Moral sensibility depends on the faculty of reflection. When we reflect on first-order passions such as gratitude, kindness and pity, we find ourselves approving or liking them and disapproving or disliking their opposites. By virtue of our receptivity to such feelings, we are capable of virtue and have a sense of right and wrong. In this way, Shaftesbury defines the moral sense that plays a significant role in the theories of subsequent Enlightenment thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson and David Hume.

In the rationalist tradition, the conflict within the breast of the person between the requirements of morality and self-interest is canonically a conflict between the person’s reason and her passions. Shaftesbury’s identification of a moral sentiment in the nature of humanity renders this a conflict within sensibility itself, a conflict between different sentiments, between a self-interested sentiment and an unegoistic sentiment. Though both Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, no less than Clarke, oppose Hobbes’s egoism, it is nonetheless true that the doctrine of moral sensibility softens moral demands, so to speak. Doing what is morally right or morally good is intrinsically bound up with a distinctive kind of pleasure on their accounts. It is significant that both Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, the two founders of modern moral sense theory, articulate their ethical theory in conjunction with an aesthetic theory. Arguably the pleasure we feel in the apprehension of something beautiful is disinterested pleasure . Our susceptibility to aesthetic pleasure can be taken to reveal that we apprehend and respond to objective (or, anyway, universal) values, not only or necessarily on the basis of reason, but through our natural sensibility instead. Thus, aesthetics, as Shaftesbury and Hutcheson independently develop an account of it, gives encouragement to their doctrines of moral sensibility. But an account of moral virtue, unlike aesthetics, requires an account of moral motivation . As noted above, both Shaftesbury and Hutcheson want to do justice to the idea that proper moral motivation is not the pursuit of pleasure, even disinterested pleasure, but rather an immediate response to the perception of moral value. The problem of giving a satisfying account of moral motivation is a difficult one for empiricist moral philosophers in the Enlightenment.

While for Shaftesbury, at the beginning of the moral sense tradition, moral sense tracks a mind-independent order of value, David Hume, motivated in part by a more radical empiricism, is happy to let the objective order go. We have no access through reason to an independent order of value which moral sense would track. For Hume, morality is founded completely on our sentiments. Hume is often regarded as the main originator of so-called “ethical subjectivism”, according to which moral judgments or evaluations (regarding actions or character) do not make claims about independent facts but merely express the subject’s feelings or attitudes with respect to actions or character. Such subjectivism is relieved of the difficult task of explaining how the objective order of values belongs to the natural world as it is being reconceived by natural science in the period; however, it faces the challenge of explaining how error and disagreement in moral judgments and evaluations are possible. Hume’s account of the standards of moral judgment follows that of Hutcheson in relying centrally on the “natural” responses of an ideal observer or spectator.

Hume’s ethics is exemplary of philosophical ethics in the Enlightenment by virtue of its belonging to the attempt to provide a new, empirically grounded science of human nature, free of theological presuppositions. As noted above, the attempts by the members of the French Enlightenment to present a new understanding of human nature are strongly influenced by Locke’s “sensationalism”, which, radicalized by Condillac, amounts to the attempt to base all contents and faculties of the human mind on the senses. Typically, the French philosophes draw more radical or iconoclastic implications from the new “science of man” than English or Scottish Enlightenment figures. Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771) is typical here. In De l’ésprit (1758), Helvétius follows the Lockean sensationalism of Condillac and pairs it with the claim that human beings are motivated in their actions only by the natural desire to maximize their own pleasure and minimize their pain. De l’ésprit , though widely read, gives rise to strong negative reactions in the time, both by political and religious authorities (the Sorbonne, the Pope and the Parlement of Paris all condemn the book) and by prominent fellow philosophes , in great part because Helvétius’s psychology seems to critics to render moral imperatives and values without basis, despite his best attempts to derive them. Helvétius attempts to ground the moral equality of all human beings by portraying all human beings, whatever their standing in the social hierarchy, whatever their special talents and gifts, as equally products of the nature we share plus the variable influences of education and social environment. But, to critics, Helvétius’s account portrays all human beings as equal only by virtue of portraying all as equally worthless (insofar as the claim to equality is grounded on all being equally determined by external factors). However, Helvétius’s ideas, in De l’ésprit as well as in its posthumously published sequel De l’homme (1772), exert a great deal of influence, especially his case for the role of pleasure and pain in human motivation and the role of education and social incentives in shaping individuals into contributors to the social good. Helvétius is sometimes regarded as the father of modern utilitarianism through his articulation of the greatest happiness principle and through his influence on Bentham.

Helvétius is typical in the respect that he is radical in the revisions he proposes, not in common moral judgments or customs of the time, but rather regarding the philosophical grounding of those judgments and customs. But there are some philosophers in the Enlightenment who are radical in the revisions they propose regarding the content of ethical judgments themselves. The Marquis de Sade is merely the most notorious example, among a set of Enlightenment figures (including also the Marquis de Argens and Diderot himself in some of his writings) who, within the context of the new naturalism and its emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure, celebrate the avid pursuit of sexual pleasure and explicitly challenge the sexual mores, as well as the wider morality, of their time. The more or less fictionalized, philosophically self-conscious “libertine” is one significant expression of Enlightenment ethical thought.

If the French Enlightenment tends to advance this-worldly happiness as the highest good for human beings more insistently than the Enlightenment elsewhere, then Rousseau’s voice is, in this as in other respects, a discordant voice in that context. Rousseau advances the cultivation and realization of human freedom as the highest end for human beings and thereby gives expression to another side of Enlightenment ethics. As Rousseau describes it, the capacity for individual self-determination puts us in a problematic relation to our natural desires and inclinations and to the realm of nature generally, insofar as that realm is constituted by mechanistic causation. Though Rousseau places a great deal of emphasis on human freedom, and makes significant contributions to our understanding of ourselves as free, he does not address very seriously the problem of the place of human freedom in the cosmos as it is conceived within the context of Enlightenment naturalism.

However, Rousseau’s writings help Kant to the articulation of a practical philosophy that addresses many of the tensions in the Enlightenment. Kant follows Rousseau, and disagrees with empiricism in ethics in the period, in emphasizing human freedom, rather than human happiness, as the central orienting concept of practical philosophy. Though Kant presents the moral principle as a principle of practical reason, his ethics also disagrees significantly with rationalist ethics in the period. According to Kant, rationalists such as Wolff, insofar as they take moral prescriptions to follow from an end given to the will (in Wolff’s case, the end of perfection), do not understand us as autonomous in our moral activity. Through interpreting the faculty of the will itself as practical reason, Kant understands the moral principle as internally legislated, thus as not only compatible with freedom, but as equivalent to the principle of a free will, as a principle of autonomy. As noted above, rationalists in ethics in the period are challenged to explain how the objective moral order which reason in us allegedly discerns gives rise to valid prescriptions binding on our wills (the gap between is and ought ). For Kant, the moral order is not independent of our will, but rather represents the formal constraints of willing as such. Kant’s account thus both avoids the is-ought gap and interprets moral willing as expressive of our freedom.

Moreover, by virtue of his interpretation of the moral principle as the principle of pure practical reason, Kant is able to redeem the ordinary sense of moral requirements as over-riding, as potentially opposed to the claims of one’s happiness, and thus as different in kind from the deliverances of prudential reasoning. This ordinary sense of moral requirements is not easily accommodated within the context of Enlightenment empiricism and naturalism. Kant’s stark dichotomy between a person’s practical reason and her sensible nature is strongly criticized, both by the subsequent Romantic generation and in the contemporary context; but this dichotomy is bound up with an important benefit of Kant’s view – much promoted by Kant himself – within the context of the Enlightenment. Elaborated in the context of Kant’s idealism as a contrast between the “realm of freedom” and the “realm of nature”, the dichotomy enables Kant’s proposed solution to the conflict between freedom and nature that besets Enlightenment thought. As noted above, Kant argues that the application of the causal principle is restricted to the realm of nature, thus making room for freedom, compatibly with the causal determination of natural events required by scientific knowledge. Additionally, Kant attempts to show that morality “leads ineluctably to” religious belief (in the supersensible objects of God and of the immortal soul) while being essentially not founded on religious belief, thus again vindicating the ordinary understanding of morality while still furthering Enlightenment values and commitments.

Though the Enlightenment is sometimes represented as the enemy of religion, it is more accurate to see it as critically directed against various (arguably contingent) features of religion, such as superstition, enthusiasm, fanaticism and supernaturalism. Indeed the effort to discern and advocate for a religion purified of such features – a “rational” or “natural” religion – is more typical of the Enlightenment than opposition to religion as such. Even Voltaire, who is perhaps the most persistent, powerful, vocal Enlightenment critic of religion, directs his polemic mostly against the Catholic Church in France – “ l’infâme ” in his famous sign-off in his letters, “ Écrasez l’infâme ” (“Crush the infamous”) refers to the Church, not to religion as such. However, controversy regarding the truth-value or reasonableness of religious belief in general, Christian belief in particular, and controversy regarding the proper place of religion in society, occupies a particularly central place in the Enlightenment. It’s as if the terrible, violent confessional strife in the early modern period in Europe, the bloody drawn-out wars between the Christian sects, was removed to the intellectual arena in the Enlightenment and became a set of more general philosophical controversies.

Alongside the rise of the new science, the rise of Protestantism in western Christianity also plays an important role in generating the Enlightenment. The original Protestants assert a sort of individual liberty with respect to questions of faith against the paternalistic authority of the Church. The “liberty of conscience”, so important to Enlightenment thinkers in general, and asserted against all manner of paternalistic authorities (including Protestant), descends from this Protestant assertion. The original Protestant assertion initiates a crisis of authority regarding religious belief, a crisis of authority that, expanded and generalized and even, to some extent, secularized, becomes a central characteristic of the Enlightenment spirit. The original Protestant assertion against the Catholic Church bases itself upon the authority of scripture. However, in the Enlightenment, the authority of scripture is strongly challenged, especially when taken literally. Developing natural science renders acceptance of a literal version of the Bible increasingly untenable. But authors such as Spinoza (in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus ) present ways of interpreting scripture according to its spirit, rather than its letter, in order to preserve its authority and truth, thus contributing to the Enlightenment controversy of whether some rationally purified version of the religion handed down in the culture belongs to the true philosophical representation of the world or not; and, if so, what its content is.

It is convenient to discuss religion in the Enlightenment by presenting four characteristic forms of Enlightenment religion in turn: deism, religion of the heart, fideism and atheism.

Deism . Deism is the form of religion most associated with the Enlightenment. According to deism, we can know by the natural light of reason that the universe is created and governed by a supreme intelligence; however, although this supreme being has a plan for creation from the beginning, the being does not interfere with creation; the deist typically rejects miracles and reliance on special revelation as a source of religious doctrine and belief, in favor of the natural light of reason. Thus, a deist typically rejects the divinity of Christ, as repugnant to reason; the deist typically demotes the figure of Jesus from agent of miraculous redemption to extraordinary moral teacher. Deism is the form of religion fitted to the new discoveries in natural science, according to which the cosmos displays an intricate machine-like order; the deists suppose that the supposition of God is necessary as the source or author of this order. Though not a deist himself, Isaac Newton provides fuel for deism with his argument in his Opticks (1704) that we must infer from the order and beauty in the world to the existence of an intelligent supreme being as the cause of this order and beauty. Samuel Clarke, perhaps the most important proponent and popularizer of Newtonian philosophy in the early eighteenth century, supplies some of the more developed arguments for the position that the correct exercise of unaided human reason leads inevitably to the well-grounded belief in God. He argues that the Newtonian physical system implies the existence of a transcendent cause, the creator God. In his first set of Boyle lectures, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God (1705), Clarke presents the metaphysical or “argument a priori ” for God’s existence. This argument concludes from the rationalist principle that whatever exists must have a sufficient reason or cause of its existence to the existence of a transcendent, necessary being who stands as the cause of the chain of natural causes and effects. Clarke also supports the empirical argument from design, the argument that concludes from the evidence of order in nature to the existence of an intelligent author of that order. In his second set of Boyle lectures, A Discourse Concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion (1706), Clarke argues as well that the moral order revealed to us by our natural reason requires the existence of a divine legislator and an afterlife, in which the supreme being rewards virtue and punishes vice. In his Boyle lectures, Clarke argues directly against the deist philosophy and maintains that what he regards as the one true religion, Christianity, is known as such on the basis of miracles and special revelation; still, Clarke’s arguments on the topic of natural religion are some of the best and most widely-known arguments in the period for the general deist position that natural philosophy in a broad sense grounds central doctrines of a universal religion.

Enlightenment deism first arises in England. In On the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), Locke aims to establish the compatibility of reason and the teachings of Christianity. Though Locke himself is (like Newton, like Clarke) not a deist, the major English deists who follow (John Toland, Christianity Not Mysterious [1696]); Anthony Collins, A Discourse of Freethinking [1713]; Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old as Creation [1730]) are influenced by Locke’s work. Voltaire carries deism across the channel to France and advocates for it there over his long literary career. Toward the end-stage, the farcical stage, of the French Revolution, Robespierre institutes a form of deism, the so-called “Cult of the Supreme Being”, as the official religion of the French state. Deism plays a role in the founding of the American republic as well. Many of the founding fathers (Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Paine) author statements or tracts that are sympathetic to deism; and their deistic sympathies influence the place given (or not given) to religion in the new American state that they found.

Religion of the Heart . Opposition to deism derives sometimes from the perception of it as coldly rationalistic. The God of the deists, arrived at through a priori or empirical argument and referred to as the Prime Mover or Original Architect, is often perceived as distant and unconcerned with the daily struggles of human existence, and thus as not answering the human needs from which religion springs in the first place. Some important thinkers of the Enlightenment – notably Shaftesbury and Rousseau – present religion as founded on natural human sentiments, rather than on the operations of the intellect. Rousseau has his Savoyard Vicar declare, in his Profession of Faith in Emile (1762), that the idea of worshiping a beneficent deity arose in him initially as he reflected on his own situation in nature and his “heart began to glow with a sense of gratitude towards the author of our being”. The Savoyard Vicar continues: “I adore the supreme power, and melt into tenderness at his goodness. I have no need to be taught artificial forms of worship; the dictates of nature are sufficient. Is it not a natural consequence of self-love to honor those who protect us, and to love such as do us good?” This “natural” religion – opposed to the “artificial” religions enforced in the institutions – is often classed as a form of deism. But it deserves separate mention, because of its grounding in natural human sentiments, rather than in reason or in metaphysical or natural scientific problems of cosmology.

Fideism . Deism or natural religion of various sorts tends to rely on the claim that reason or human experience supports the hypothesis that there is a supreme being who created or authored the world. In one of the most important philosophical texts on natural religion to appear during the Enlightenment, David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (published posthumously in 1779), this supposition is criticized relentlessly, incisively and in detail. Naturally, the critical, questioning attitude characteristic of the Enlightenment in general is directed against the arguments on which natural religion is based. In Part Nine of the Dialogues, Samuel Clarke’s “argument a priori” (as defended by the character Demea) is dispatched fairly quickly, but with a battery of arguments. But Hume is mainly concerned in the Dialogues with the other major pillar of natural religion in the Enlightenment, the “empirical” argument, the teleological argument or the argument from design. Cleanthes, the character who advances the design argument in the dialogue, proceeds from the rule for empirical reasoning that like effects prove like causes. He reasons that, given the resemblance between nature, which displays in many respects a “curious adaptation of means to ends”, and a man-made machine, we must infer the cause of nature to be an intelligence like ours, though greater in proportion as nature surpasses in perfection the products of human intelligence. Philo, the skeptical voice in the Dialogues , presses Cleanthes’ argument on many fronts. He points out that the argument is only as strong as the similarity between nature or parts of nature and man-made machines, and further, that a close scrutiny reveals that analogy to be weak. Moreover, according to the principle of the argument, the stronger the evidence for an author (or authors) of nature, the more like us that author (or authors) should be taken to be. Consequently, according to Philo, the argument does not support the conclusion that God exists, taking God to be unitary, infinite, perfect, et cetera. Also, although the existence of evil and disorder in nature may serve actually to strengthen the case for the argument, given the disorder in human creations as well, the notion that God authors evil and disorder is disturbing. If one denies that there is disorder and evil in nature, however implausibly, the effect is to emphasize again the dissimilarity between nature and human products and thus weaken the central basis of the argument. With these and other considerations, Philo puts the proponent of the empirical argument in a difficult dialectical position. But Cleanthes is not moved. He holds the inference from the phenomenon of the curious adaptation of means to ends in nature to the existence of an intelligent and beneficent author to be so natural as to be impervious to the philosophical cavils raised by Philo. And, in the ambiguous conclusion of the work, Philo seems to agree. Though Hume himself seems to have been an atheist, one natural way to take the upshot of his Dialogues is that religious belief is so “natural” to us that rational criticism cannot unseat it. The ambiguous upshot of the work can be taken to be the impotence of rational criticism in the face of religious belief, rather than the illegitimacy of religious belief in the face of rational criticism. This tends toward fideism, the view according to which religious faith maintains its truth over against philosophical reasoning, which opposes but cannot defeat it. Fideism is most often associated with thinkers whose beliefs run contrary to the trends of the Enlightenment (Blaise Pascal, Johann-Georg Hamann, Søren Kierkegaard), but the skeptical strain in the Enlightenment, from Pierre Bayle through David Hume, expresses itself not only in atheism, but also in fideism.

Atheism . Atheism is more present in the French Enlightenment than elsewhere. In the writings of Denis Diderot, atheism is partly supported by an expansive, dynamic conception of nature. According to the viewpoint developed by Diderot, we ought to search for the principles of natural order within natural processes themselves, not in a supernatural being. Even if we don’t yet know the internal principles for the ordering and development of natural forms, the appeal to a transcendent author of such things is reminiscent, to Diderot’s ear, of the appeal to Aristotelian “substantial forms” that was expressly rejected at the beginning of modern science as explaining nothing. The appeal to a transcendent author does not extend our understanding, but merely marks and fixes the limits of it. Atheism (combined with materialism) in the French Enlightenment is perhaps most identified with the Baron d’Holbach, whose System of Nature (1770) generated a great deal of controversy at the time for urging the case for atheism explicitly and emphatically. D’Holbach’s system of nature is strongly influenced by Diderot’s writings, though it displays less subtlety and dialectical sophistication. Though most Enlightenment thinkers hold that morality requires religion, in the sense that morality requires belief in a transcendent law-giver and in an after-life, d’Holbach (influenced in this respect by Spinoza, among others) makes the case for an ethical naturalism, an ethics that is free of any reference to a supernatural grounding or aspiration. Like Helvétius before him, d’Holbach presents an ethics in which virtue consists in enlightened self-interest. The metaphysical background of the ethics he presents is deterministic materialism. The Prussian enlightened despot, Frederick the Great, famously criticizes d’Holbach’s book for exemplifying the incoherence that troubles the Enlightenment generally: while d’Holbach provides passionate moral critiques of existing religious and social and political institutions and practices, his own materialist, determinist conception of nature allows no place for moral “oughts” and prescriptions and values.

3. The Beautiful: Aesthetics in the Enlightenment

Modern systematic philosophical aesthetics not only first emerges in the context of the Enlightenment, but also flowers brilliantly there. As Ernst Cassirer notes, the eighteenth century not only thinks of itself as the “century of philosophy”, but also as “the age of criticism,” where criticism is centrally (though not only) art and literary criticism (Cassirer 1932, 255). Philosophical aesthetics flourishes in the period because of its strong affinities with the tendencies of the age. Alexander Baumgarten, the German philosopher in the school of Christian Wolff, founds systematic aesthetics in the period, in part through giving it its name. “Aesthetics” is derived from the Greek word for “senses”, because for Baumgarten a science of the beautiful would be a science of the sensible, a science of sensible cognition. The Enlightenment in general re-discovers the value of the senses, not only in cognition, but in human lives in general, and so, given the intimate connection between beauty and human sensibility, the Enlightenment is naturally particularly interested in aesthetics. Also, the Enlightenment includes a general recovery and affirmation of the value of pleasure in human lives, against the tradition of Christian asceticism, and the flourishing of the arts, of the criticism of the arts and of the philosophical theorizing about beauty, promotes and is promoted by this recovery and affirmation. The Enlightenment also enthusiastically embraces the discovery and disclosure of rational order in nature, as manifest most clearly in the development of the new science. It seems to many theorists in the Enlightenment that the faculty of taste, the faculty by which we discern beauty, reveals to us some part of this order, a distinctive harmony, unities amidst variety. Thus, in the phenomenon of aesthetic pleasure, human sensibility discloses to us rational order, thus binding together two enthusiasms of the Enlightenment.

In the early Enlightenment, especially in France, the emphasis is upon the discernment of an objective rational order, rather than upon the subject’s sensual aesthetic pleasure. Though Descartes’ philosophical system does not include a theory of taste or of beauty, his mathematical model of the physical universe inspires the aesthetics of French classicism. French classicism begins from the classical maxim that the beautiful is the true. Nicolas Boileau writes in his influential didactic poem, The Art of Poetry (1674), in which he lays down rules for good versification within different genres, that “Nothing is beautiful but the true, the true alone is lovable.” In the period the true is conceived of as an objective rational order. According to the classical conception of art that dominates in the period, art imitates nature, though not nature as given in disordered experience, but the ideal nature, the ideal in which we can discern and enjoy “unity in multiplicity.” In French classicism, aesthetics is very much under the influence of, and indeed modeled on, systematic, rigorous theoretical science of nature. Just as in Descartes’ model of science, where knowledge of all particulars depends on prior knowledge of the principle from which the particulars are deduced, so also in the aesthetics of French classicism, the demand is for systematization under a single, universal principle. The subjection of artistic phenomena to universal rules and principles is expressed, for example, in the title of Charles Batteaux’s main work, The Fine Arts Reduced to a Single Principle (1746), as well as in Boileau’s rules for good versification.

In Germany in the eighteenth century, Christian Wolff’s systematic rationalist metaphysics forms the basis for much of the reflection on aesthetics, though sometimes as a set of doctrines to be argued against. Wolff affirms the classical dictum that beauty is truth; beauty is truth perceived through the feeling of pleasure. Wolff understands beauty to consist in the perfection in things, which he understands in turn to consist in a harmony or order of a manifold. We judge something beautiful through a feeling of pleasure when we sense in it this harmony or perfection. Beauty is, for Wolff, the sensitive cognition of perfection. Thus, for Wolff, beauty corresponds to objective features of the world, but judgments of beauty are relative to us also, insofar as they are based on the human faculty of sensibility.

Though philosophical rationalism forms the basis of aesthetics in the early Enlightenment in France and Germany, thinkers in the empiricist tradition in England and Scotland introduce many of the salient themes of Enlightenment aesthetics. In particular, with the rise of empiricism and subjectivism in this domain, attention shifts to the ground and nature of the subject’s experience of beauty, the subject’s aesthetic response. Lord Shaftesbury, though not himself an empiricist or subjectivist in aesthetics, makes significant contributions to this development. Shaftesbury re-iterates the classical equation, “all beauty is truth,” but the truth that beauty is for Shaftesbury is not an objective rational order that could also be known conceptually. Though beauty is, for Shaftesbury, a kind of harmony that is independent of the human mind, under the influence of Plotinus, he understands the human being’s immediate intuition of the beautiful as a kind of participation in the original harmony. Shaftesbury focuses attention on the nature of the subject’s response to beauty, as elevating the person, also morally. He maintains that aesthetic response consists in a disinterested unegoistic pleasure; the discovery of this capacity for disinterested pleasure in harmony shows the way for the development of his ethics that has a similar grounding. And, in fact, in seeing aesthetic response as elevating oneself above self-interested pursuits, through cultivating one’s receptivity to disinterested pleasure, Shaftesbury ties tightly together aesthetics and ethics, morality and beauty, and in that respect also contributes to a trend of the period. Also, in placing the emphasis on the subject’s response to beauty, rather than on the objective characteristics of the beautiful, Shaftesbury makes aesthetics belong to the general Enlightenment interest in human nature. Thinkers of the period find in our receptivity to beauty a key both to understanding both distinctively human nature and its perfection.

Francis Hutcheson follows Shaftesbury in his emphasis on the subject’s aesthetic response, on the distinctive sort of pleasure that the beautiful elicits in us. Partly because the Neo-Platonic influence, so pronounced in Shaftesbury’s aesthetics, is washed out of Hutcheson’s, to be replaced by a more thorough-going empiricism, Hutcheson understands this distinctive aesthetic pleasure as more akin to a secondary quality. Thus, Hutcheson’s aesthetic work raises the prominent question whether “beauty” refers to something objective at all or whether beauty is “nothing more” than a human idea or experience. As in the domain of Enlightenment ethics, so with Enlightenment aesthetics too, the step from Shaftesbury to Hutcheson marks a step toward subjectivism. Hutcheson writes in one of his Two Treatises , his Inquiry Concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony, Design (1725) that “the word ‘beauty’ is taken for the idea raised in us , and a sense of beauty for our power of receiving this idea ” (Section I, Article IX). However, though Hutcheson understands beauty to be an idea in us, he takes this idea to be “excited” or “occasioned” in us by distinctive objective qualities, in particular by objects that display “ uniformity amidst variety ” (ibid., Section II, Article III). In the very title of Hutcheson’s work above, we see the importance of the classical ideas of (rational) order and harmony in Hutcheson’s aesthetic theory, even as he sets the tenor for much Enlightenment discussion of aesthetics through placing the emphasis on the subjective idea and aesthetic response.

David Hume’s famous essay on “the standard of taste” raises and addresses the epistemological problem raised by subjectivism in aesthetics. If beauty is an idea in us, rather than a feature of objects independent of us, then how do we understand the possibility of correctness and incorrectness – how do we understand the possibility of standards of judgment – in this domain? The problem is posed more clearly for Hume because he intensifies Hutcheson’s subjectivism. He writes in the Treatise that “pleasure and pain….are not only necessary attendants of beauty and deformity, but constitute their very essence” ( Treatise , Book II, part I, section viii). But if a judgment of taste is based on, or expresses, subjective sentiments, how can it be incorrect? In his response to this question, Hume accounts for the expectation of agreement in judgments of taste by appealing to the fact that we share a common human nature, and he accounts for ‘objectivity’ or expertise in judgments of taste, within the context of his subjectivism, by appealing to the normative responses of well-placed observers. Both of these points (the commonality of human nature and the securing of ‘objectivity’ in judgments based on sentiments by appeal to the normative responses of appropriately placed observers) are typical of the period more generally, and especially of the strong empiricist strain in the Enlightenment. Hume develops the empiricist line in aesthetics to the point where little remains of the classical emphasis on the order or harmony or truth that is, according to the French classicists, apprehended and appreciated in our aesthetic responses to the beautiful, and thus, according to the classicists, the ground of aesthetic responses.

Immanuel Kant faces squarely the problem of the normativity of judgments of taste. Influenced by Hutcheson and the British empiricist tradition in general, Kant understands judgments of taste to be founded on a distinctive sort of feeling, a disinterested pleasure. In taking judgments of taste to be subjective (they are founded on the subject’s feeling of pleasure) and non-cognitive (such judgments do not subsume representations under concepts and thus do not ascribe properties to objects), Kant breaks with the German rationalist school. However Kant continues to maintain that judgments of beauty are like cognitive judgments in making a legitimate claim to universal agreement – in contrast to judgments of the agreeable. The question is how to vindicate the legitimacy of this demand. Kant argues that the distinctive pleasure underlying judgments of taste is the experience of the harmony of the faculties of the imagination and the understanding, a harmony that arises through their “free play” in the process of cognizing objects on the basis of given sensible intuition. The harmony is “free” in an experience of beauty in the sense that it is not forced by rules of the understanding, as is the agreement among the faculties in acts of cognition. The order and harmony that we experience in the face of the beautiful is subjective, according to Kant; but it is at the same time universal and normative, by virtue of its relation to the conditions of human cognition.

The emphasis Kant places on the role of the activity of the imagination in aesthetic pleasure and discernment typifies a trend in Enlightenment thought. Whereas early in the Enlightenment, in French classicism, and to some extent in Christian Wolff and other figures of German rationalism, the emphasis is on the more-or-less static rational order and proportion and on rigid universal rules or laws of reason, the trend during the development of Enlightenment aesthetics is toward emphasis on the play of the imagination and its fecundity in generating associations.

Denis Diderot is an important and influential author on aesthetics. He wrote the entry “On the Origin and Nature of the Beautiful” for the Encyclopedia (1752). Like Lessing in Germany, Diderot not only philosophized about art and beauty, but also wrote plays and influential art criticism. Diderot is strongly influenced in his writings on aesthetics by the empiricism in England and Scotland, but his writing is not limited to that standpoint. Diderot repeats the classical dictum that art should imitate nature, but, whereas, for French classicists, the nature that art should imitate is ideal nature – a static, universal rational order – for Diderot, nature is dynamic and productive. For Diderot, the nature the artist ought to imitate is the real nature we experience, warts and all (as it were). The particularism and realism of Diderot’s aesthetics is based on a critique of the standpoint of French classicism (see Cassirer 1935, p. 295f.). This critique exposes the artistic rules represented by French classicists as universal rules of reason as nothing more than conventions marking what is considered proper within a certain tradition. In other words, the prescriptions within the French classical tradition are artificial , not natural , and constitute fetters to artistic genius. Diderot takes liberation from such fetters to come from turning to the task of observing and imitating actual nature . Diderot’s emphasis on the primeval productive power and abundance of nature in his aesthetic writings contributes to the trend toward focus on artistic creation and expression (as opposed to artistic appreciation and discernment) that is a characteristic of the late Enlightenment and the transition to Romanticism.

Lessing’s aesthetic writings play an important role in elevating the aesthetic category of expressiveness. In his famous Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766), Lessing argues, by comparing the famous Greek statue with the representation of Laocoön’s suffering in Virgil’s poetry, that the aims of poetry and of the visual arts are not identical; he argues that the aim of poetry is not beauty, but expression. In elevating the aesthetic category of expressiveness, Lessing challenges the notion that all art is imitation of nature. His argument also challenges the notion that all the various arts can be deduced from a single principle. Lessing’s argument in Laocoön supports the contrary thesis that the distinct arts have distinct aims and methods, and that each should be understood on its own terms, not in terms of an abstract general principle from which all arts are to be deduced. For some, especially for critics of the Enlightenment, in this point Lessing is already beyond the Enlightenment. Certainly it is true that the emphasis on the individual or particular, over against the universal, which one finds in other late Enlightenment thinkers, is in tension with Enlightenment tenets. Herder (following Hamann to some extent) argues that each individual art object has to be understood in its own terms, as a totality complete unto itself. With Herder’s stark emphasis on individuality in aesthetics, over against universality, the supplanting of the Enlightenment with Romanticism and Historicism is well advanced. But, according to the point of view taken in this entry, the conception of the Enlightenment according to which it is distinguished by its prioritization of the order of abstract, universal laws and principles, over against concrete particulars and the differences amongst them, is too narrow; it fails to account for much of the characteristic richness in the thought of the period. Indeed aesthetics itself, as a discipline, which, as noted, is founded in the Enlightenment by the German rationalist, Alexander Baumgarten, owes its existence to the tendency in the Enlightenment to search for and discover distinct laws for distinct kinds of phenomena (as opposed to insisting that all phenomena be made intelligible through the same set of general laws and principles). Baumgarten founds aesthetics as a ‘science’ through the attempt to establish the sensible domain as cognizable in a way different from that which prevails in metaphysics. Aesthetics in Germany in the eighteenth century, from Wolff to Herder, both typifies many of the trends of the Enlightenment and marks the field where the Enlightenment yields to competing worldviews.

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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
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aesthetics: British, in the 18th century | aesthetics: French, in the 18th century | aesthetics: German, in the 18th century | Bacon, Francis | Bayle, Pierre | Burke, Edmund | Clarke, Samuel | Collins, Anthony | Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de | Condorcet, Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de: in the history of feminism | cosmopolitanism | Descartes, René | emotion: 17th and 18th century theories of | ethics: natural law tradition | German Philosophy: in the 18th century, prior to Kant | Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron) d’ | Hume, David | Kant, Immanuel | Kant, Immanuel: aesthetics and teleology | Locke, John | Mendelssohn, Moses | Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de | Newton, Isaac | Reid, Thomas | Scottish Philosophy: in the 18th Century | Shaftesbury, Lord [Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of] | toleration | Vico, Giambattista | Voltaire | Wolff, Christian


Mark Alznauer, Margaret Atherton, Kyla Ebels-Duggan, Alan Nelson, Julius Sensat and Rachel Zuckert provided helpful comments on an earlier draft, which lead to substantial revisions.

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Researchers in Museums

Engaging the public with research & collections


Adventures in Eighteenth-century Papermaking

By Hannah L Wills, on 21 July 2017

By Hannah Wills

Earlier this summer, I gave a talk with some of the other engagers at our ‘Materials & Objects’ event at the UCL Art Museum. In preparing for the event, we were all challenged to think about the objects, materials, and physical ‘stuff’ that we work with on a daily basis. As I’ve written about before , my research focuses on the notebooks and diaries of a late eighteenth-century physician and natural philosopher, Charles Blagden (1748-1820), who served as secretary to the Royal Society. One of the things I’m interested in is how Blagden used his notebooks and diaries to keep track of his day-to-day activities, as well as the business of one of London’s major learned societies. Record keeping and note taking was a central part of Blagden’s life, and it’s owing to his impressive record keeping habit that there’s one material I handle in my research more than any other: eighteenth-century paper.

A selection of Blagden’s many notebooks, held at the Wellcome Library. (Image credit: Charles Blagden, L0068242 Lectures on chemistry, Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, MSS 1219 - MSS1227. CC BY 4.0)

A selection of Blagden’s many notebooks, held at the Wellcome Library. (Image credit: Charles Blagden, L0068242 Lectures on chemistry , Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, MSS 1219 – MSS1227. CC BY 4.0 )

When I began preparing my talk for ‘Materials & Objects’, I started to think about how I might bring paper, a relatively mundane material, to life. My initial reading on the craft of papermaking told me that despite it being a 2000-year old process, making paper by hand has changed relatively little between then and now. [i] Out of curiosity, I decided to do an experiment, and to see if I could replicate some of the processes of eighteenth-century papermaking at home, in my kitchen.

The first stage in the papermaking process is to select the material from which the paper is going to be made. In the eighteenth century, this would typically have been cotton and linen rags. Towards the end of the century, shortages of rags, in part caused by an increased use of paper for printing, meant that makers began to experiment with other materials. In 1801, the very first book printed on recycled paper was published in London—that is, paper that had been printed on once before already. [ii]

Having selected the material, the next step is to break it down, making it into a pulp. When papermaking was first introduced in Europe in the twelfth century, rags were wetted, pressed into balls, and then left to ferment. After this, the rags were macerated in large water-powered stamping mills. [iii] In the eighteenth century, a beating engine, or a Hollander, was used to tear up the material, creating a wet pulp by circulating rags around a large tub with a cylinder fitted with cutting bars (see below). [iv] For my purposes, I found a kitchen blender worked well to break up scraps of used paper from my recycling bin at home, ready to make into new blank sheets.

(Left) Eighteenth-century illustration of a beating engine, from Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5, Paris, 1767. (Right) A kitchen blender achieves roughly the same effect, breaking up old used paper soaked in water to create a pulp. (Image credits: Left “Papermaking. Plate VIII" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Abigail Wendler Bainbridge. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

(Left) Eighteenth-century illustration of a beating engine, from Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5, Paris, 1767. (Right) A kitchen blender achieves roughly the same effect, breaking up old used paper soaked in water to create a pulp. (Image credits: Left “ Papermaking. Plate VIII ” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Abigail Wendler Bainbridge. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

Having been broken down, the liquid pulp mixture is then transferred to a container. In the eighteenth century, someone known as the ‘vatman’ would have stood over this container and dipped a mould into the solution at a near-perpendicular angle. Turning the mould face upwards in the solution before lifting it out horizontally, the vatman would have pulled out the mould to find an even covering of macerated fibres assembled across its surface. It is these fibres that would later form the finished sheet of paper. [v]

An eighteenth-century vatman dipping the mould into the vat. (Image credit: Detail “Papermaking. Plate X" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

An eighteenth-century vatman dipping the mould into the vat. (Image credit: Detail “ Papermaking. Plate X ” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 )

The moulds used in papermaking determine several features of the finished sheets of paper, including shape, texture and appearance. The type of mould first used in European papermaking was known as a ‘laid’ mould. This mould typically featured wires laced horizontally into vertical wooden ribs, meaning that when the mould was pulled out of the vat, the pulp would lie heavier on either size of the wooden ribs, giving vertical dark patches and the characteristic markings of ‘laid’ paper. [vi]

Screenshot 2017-07-20 11.16.04

A laid mould, with vertical wooden ribs and horizontal wires. A design and marker’s name are visible sewn into the mould, and will leave what is known as the ‘watermark’ on individual sheets of paper. (Image credit: Laid mold and deckle , Denmark – Robert C. Williams Paper Museum, CC0 1.0 )

Screenshot 2017-07-20 15.10.07

Characteristic ‘link and chain’ pattern found on laid paper, left by the ribs and wires. This piece is a modern imitation of antique laid paper. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

In mid-eighteenth century Britain, a new type of mould became widely used, developed by the Whatman papermakers based in Kent. This mould was known as a ‘wove’ mould, and had a much smoother surface, consisting of a fine brass screening that was woven like cloth. These moulds imparted a more uniform and fabric-like texture to individual sheets. [vii]

A wove mould, featuring two large watermark designs. Between the watermarks the smooth surface of the woven screening is visible, which leaves the paper with a fabric-like textured appearance, without the prominent horizontal and vertical lines of laid paper. (Image credit: Wove mould made by J. Brewer, London, England - Robert C. Williams Paper Museum, CC0 1.0)

A wove mould, featuring two large watermark designs. Between the watermarks the smooth surface of the woven screening is visible, which leaves the paper with a fabric-like textured appearance, without the prominent horizontal and vertical lines of laid paper. (Image credit: Wove mould made by J. Brewer, London, England – Robert C. Williams Paper Museum, CC0 1.0 )

For my own papermaking, I chose to dip a piece of fine sieve-like material into my makeshift vat, aiming to replicate partially the texture and appearance of a ‘wove’ mould. The implement I chose for this was a small kitchen pan splatter guard, made up of fine mesh that when pulled out of the vat would hold a layer of fibres on its surface.

My chosen mould, a kitchen pan splatter guard, made from fine sieve-like material. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

My chosen mould, a kitchen pan splatter guard, made from fine sieve-like material. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

Dipping the mould into the vat and removing slowly, fibres are left on the surface of the mould. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

Dipping the mould into the vat and removing slowly, fibres are left on the surface of the mould. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

After the mould was pulled from the vat, the eighteenth-century vatman would pass it on to a coucher who would remove the sheet from the mould, before pressing it between felts to remove the water. [viii]

On the left, the vatman pulls the mould from the vat, before passing it to the coucher on the right hand side of the image, who removes the sheet from the mould before pressing a number of sheets at the same time in a large press. (Image credit: “Papermaking. Plate X" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

On the left, the vatman pulls the mould from the vat, before passing it to the coucher on the right hand side of the image, who removes the sheet from the mould before pressing a number of sheets at the same time in a large press. (Image credit: “ Papermaking. Plate X ” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 )

In order to remove my sheet of paper from the mould, I placed another sieve-material implement over the top of the fibres and pressed down with a sponge. With a tea towel placed underneath, this worked to remove much of the water without the need for a proper press. Pulling the top piece of sieve away from the bottom, I was left with a drier surface of fibres, which could be carefully lifted off the mould, and set aside to dry.

(Left) Pressing the sheet of fibres between two splatter guards. (Right) After the top guard is removed, the pressed sheet of paper is revealed. The circular shape is due to the shape of the mould. (Image credits: Both Hannah Wills)

(Left) Pressing the sheet of fibres between two splatter guards. (Right) After the top guard is removed, the pressed sheet of paper is revealed. The circular shape is due to the shape of the mould. (Image credits: Both Hannah Wills)

At this point in the eighteenth-century process, sheets were ‘sized’—dipped into a gelatinous substance made from animal hides that made the sheet stronger and water resistant. [ix] After my sheets had been left to one side to dry for a few hours, I decided to experiment by writing on them. I had not applied size to any of my sheets, so found that when I wrote on them the ink spread out, giving a sort of blotting paper effect.

(Left) After pressing, the sheets are dipped into large tub containing size. This step is important if the paper is to have a slightly waterproof quality that enables it to be written on without the ink spreading. (Right) Writing with ink on untreated sheets results in the ink spreading out across the paper. (Image credits: Left “Papermaking. Plate XI" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

(Left) After pressing, the sheets are dipped into large tub containing size. This step is important if the paper is to have a slightly waterproof quality that enables it to be written on without the ink spreading. (Right) Writing with ink on untreated sheets results in the ink spreading out across the paper. (Image credits: Left “ Papermaking. Plate XI ” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 . Right Hannah Wills)

After having size applied, sheets in an eighteenth-century papermill would have undergone a number of finishing stages. These included polishing and surfacing, processes that gave the paper a more uniform appearance. [x] With my own sheets of paper, I found passing a warm iron over the surface achieved a similar effect, removing some of the creases and wrinkles that had appeared during drying.

My finished sheet of paper, trimmed down into a small square ready for use. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

My finished sheet of paper, trimmed down into a small square ready for use. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

It is after these final finishing and drying processes that sheets of paper are ready to be packaged up and sent to the stationer’s.

Replicating historic crafts and processes is not new within the discipline of history. One of my favourite examples is a paper that was published in 1995, in which the historian Heinz Otto Sibum recreated the experiments of the scientist James Prescott Joule (1818-1889) in determining the mechanical equivalent of heat . By trying to recreate the experiment from Joule’s notes, Sibum revealed that Joule made frequent use of the bodily skills he developed while working in the brewing industry, such as the ability to measure temperatures remarkably accurately by using only his elbow. [xi] Often, attempting to replicate an experiment or craft will reveal just how much it relies upon implicit bodily skills, or tacit knowledge, the kinds of ‘knacks’ that are not written down but are simply known to those who perform an activity regularly.

In attempting to replicate the craft of eighteenth-century papermaking, I really only approximated the process, making substitutions for equipment and improvising a number of techniques, particularly when it came to removing my delicate wet sheets of paper from the mould. I think the biggest lesson I learnt was to have a greater appreciation of the material, and just how many skills and processes went into crafting each sheet of paper in the eighteenth century. Characteristics of individual sheets such as colour, texture and markings had not caught my attention in the archives previously, but I now find them fascinating for what they can reveal about the nature of the fibres used, the construction of the paper mould, and the processes followed by each individual papermaker.


[i] Dard Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft (New York: Dover, 1978), 178.

[ii] Ibid., 309-33.

[iii] Ibid., 153-55.

[iv] Theresa Fairbanks and Scott Wilcox, Papermaking and the Art of Watercolour in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Paul Sandby and the Whatman Paper Mills (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art in association with Yale University Press, 2006), 68.

[v] Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft , 177.

[vi] Ibid., 114-23.

[vii] Ibid., 125-27. See also Fairbanks and Wilcox, Papermaking and the Art of Watercolour in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Paul Sandby and the Whatman Paper Mills .

[viii] Papermaking and the Art of Watercolour in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Paul Sandby and the Whatman Paper Mills , 71.

[ix] Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft , 194.

[x] Ibid., 196-99.

[xi] Heinz Otto Sibum, “Reworking the Mechanical Value of Heat,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 26, no. 1 (1995): 73-106.

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Instructive – and fun! (Measuring temperature with my elbow… something to work on! )

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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Watercolor painting in britain, 1750–1850.

View of the Villa Lante on the Janiculum in Rome

View of the Villa Lante on the Janiculum in Rome

John Robert Cozens

Lindisfarne Castle, Holy Island, Northumberland

Lindisfarne Castle, Holy Island, Northumberland

Thomas Girtin

Craig Goch, Moel Hebog, North Wales

Craig Goch, Moel Hebog, North Wales

Cornelius Varley

View of Kensington Gardens, London

View of Kensington Gardens, London

John Linnell

Rouen, View from Bon-Secours

Rouen, View from Bon-Secours

Richard Parkes Bonington

View of University Park looking towards New College, Oxford

View of University Park looking towards New College, Oxford

William Turner of Oxford

Elizabeth E. Barker Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2004

And never yet did Insurrection want Such water-colours, to impaint his cause .

— Shakespeare , Henry IV, Part I (1596), act 5, scene 1, line 80

Definition Watercolor is named for its primary component. It consists of a pigment dissolved in water and bound by a colloid agent (usually a gum, such as gum arabic); it is applied with a brush onto a supporting surface such as vellum, fabric, or—more typically—dampened paper. The resulting mark (after the water has evaporated) is transparent, allowing light to reflect from the supporting surface, to luminous effect. Watercolor is often combined with gouache (or “bodycolor”), an opaque water-based paint containing a white element derived from chalk, lead, or zinc oxide.

Materials The rise of watercolor painting as a serious artistic endeavor progressed hand-in-hand with the improvement and commercial development of its materials.

Paints Initially, artists ground their own colors from natural pigments, or else bought paint in liquid form. In the last two decades of the eighteenth century, however, artists could purchase small, hard cakes of soluble watercolor (invented by William Reeves in 1780). To produce the paint, an artist dipped a cake in water and rubbed it onto a suitable receptacle, such as an oyster shell or porcelain saucer. Beginning in the 1830s, artists could buy moist watercolors in porcelain pans. An even greater advance arrived in 1846, when Winsor & Newton introduced moist watercolors in metal tubes (following the example of tubed oil paint, first sold in 1841). The machine-ground pigments pioneered by British manufacturers produced fine, homogeneous watercolors that set the international standard.

In 1834, Winsor & Newton introduced their patented zinc oxide pigment “Chinese White”; this superfine—and therefore smoothly applied—permanent color greatly improved the qualities of gouache. In the first half of the nineteenth century, J. M. W. Turner instituted the practice of applying diluted white gouache as a wash. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Pre-Raphaelite painters used white gouache as a ground upon which to paint in a precise, miniature-like style.

Paintboxes By the middle of the eighteenth century, British artists regularly sketched outdoors. In watercolor, they found a medium well-suited to their needs, capable of capturing fleeting effects of light and weather, and requiring readily portable materials. At first, artists made their own carrying cases: one treatise on watercolor painting published in 1731 provides instructions for making a pocket-sized ivory case with compartments for thirty-two colors, brushes, a porte-crayon (a drawing instrument that holds pieces of chalk), and compasses. Turner made something equally effective by sticking cakes of watercolor into a leather carrying case (modified from its original use as an almanac cover). Later, artists’ colormen sold ready-made boxes. The most luxurious—constructed of mahogany, and fitted with brass hardware and embossed-leather linings—provided porcelain mixing pans, wash bowls, storage tins for chalks or charcoal, trays for brushes and porte-crayons, and scrapers, blocks of ink, and colors. Less expensive alternatives met the demands of increasing numbers of amateur artists . The pocket-sized “Shilling color box” in japanned tin offered pan colors and compartments for mixing, along with separate tin water vessels that clipped to the edge. Commercially available from the 1830s, it became a Victorian bestseller (more than 11 million units sold from 1853 to 1870).

Brushes and Other Tools The fine hair of the Asiatic marten (or Russian sable)—which comes readily to a point in the mouth, holds a large amount of color, and flexes against the surface of the paper—provided watercolor painters with a pliant, firm, and durable material for applying color. Handles for such “sable” watercolor brushes were first made from quills, and later, metal-ferruled wooden shafts. Additional tools became common to watercolor painters during the nineteenth century, when “reductive” painting techniques flourished: scrapers, sandpaper, penknives, brush handles, or fingernails were used to remove dry or wet color from the surface of the paper to create highlights; sponges, brushes, bread crumbs, or bits of paper were used to blot watercolor washes and soften their intensity.

Paper The production of wove paper in the late eighteenth century laid the groundwork for future technical advances in watercolor painting. Whereas earlier papers retained the parallel laid lines of their paper-making molds, thereby causing wet watercolor washes to pool, wove papers exhibited virtually no impressions of their fine, wire-mesh molds, allowing painters to apply smooth, precise washes of watercolor without interruption.

Wove paper appeared in a published book as early as 1767, and was immediately sought out by artists. By the 1780s, James Whatman had developed a wove paper ready-sized with gelatin for use with watercolors. (Sizing a sheet with animal glue, gum, or egg provides a protective coating that reduces damage caused by wetting, rewetting, and reworking.) Over the course of the nineteenth century, a staggering array of watercolor papers of various sizes, textures, and surfaces emerged to meet the expanding techniques of the medium. By 1850, the leading manufacturer Whatman offered papers with three distinct surfaces, from least to most textured: “HP” (“hot pressed”), suited to detailed subjects; “Not” (“not hot pressed”), suited to less precise work; and “Rough” (“cold-pressed” or “unpressed”), suited to sketchy effects. A fourth option, “Griffin Antiquarian,” produced in conjunction with Winsor & Newton, offered a very large sheet of extraordinary strength. The trend for extremely tough surfaces that could withstand great amounts of scrubbing, rinsing, and scraping continued through the nineteenth century, culminating in J. Barcham Green & Son’s “O.W.” paper, a gelatin sized pure linen board developed by the painter John William North in 1895, and certified by the Royal Water-Colour Society.

To prevent thinner papers from cockling when dampened by the application of watercolors, artists typically stretched them taut. Initially, they pasted or pinned the edges of a dampened sheet to an ordinary drawing board; later (beginning in the nineteenth century), they clamped it to a commercially manufactured stretching board. One type consisted of a mahogany frame attached to a backboard. Its popularity is understandable: such stretching frames lent works-in-progress something of the aspect of a picture framed for exhibition.

History The technique of water-based painting dates to ancient times, and belongs to the history of many cultures in the world. In the West, European artists used watercolor to decorate illuminated manuscripts and to color maps in the Middle Ages, and to make studies from nature and portrait miniatures during the Renaissance ( 50.69.2 ; 35.89.4 ).

Today, the medium is most commonly associated with Britain during the period extending roughly from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century—the so-called Golden Age of watercolor. The tradition began with near-monochromatic examples: topographical drawings executed in graphite or ink, and tinted with a restricted range of colored washes by artists such as William Taverner (1703–1772), Paul Sandby (baptized 1731–1809), Thomas Hearne (1744–1817), Michael “Angelo” Rooker (1746–1801), and Thomas Malton (1748–1804). A different type of monochromatic landscape drawing, in which a design made in dark ink was washed (in its entirety) with a single hue, was developed by the influential drawing master Alexander Cozens (1717–1786) and continued by Joseph Wright, called “Wright of Derby” (1734–1797).

While some artists, such as Thomas Rowlandson (1757–1827), continued to produce “tinted drawings” well into the nineteenth century, other artists began to challenge the conventions of firm outlines and pale hues in favor of more painterly effects, achieved using fluent washes of strong color. For some—such as Jonathan Skelton (active 1735–59), Francis Towne (1739–1816), William Pars (1742–1782), Thomas Jones (1742–1803), John “Warwick” Smith (1749–1831), and most importantly, John Robert Cozens (1752–1797) ( 67.68 ), son of Alexander Cozens mentioned above—a period of study in Italy prompted that change. Others, such as J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) and Thomas Girtin (1775–1802) ( 06.1051.1 ), took inspiration from the works of other artists (most notably, J. R. Cozens), and from the example of oil painting.

The new “Romantic” watercolor style developed around 1800 employed freer brushwork—often applied to rough-textured papers—and sought to capture fleeting atmospheric effects. John Constable (1776–1837) used watercolor to record the appearance of cloud-filled skies at specific times of day and in various weather conditions, and then used these aides mémoires in composing his oil paintings. Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–1828), a British artist active in France, developed a virtuoso watercolor style marked by its brilliant palette. David Wilkie (1785–1841), William James Müller (1812–1845), and John Fredrick Lewis (1805–1876) shared that taste, and employed it in the service of exotic subjects encountered on journeys to “Oriental” lands—Egypt, Turkey, and the Middle East.

This trend toward stylistic brevity might also be traced through the scientific instrument painter and amateur watercolorist Cornelius Varley (1781–1873) ( 1973.83 )—brother of the painter and influential teacher John Varley (1778–1842)—who created remarkably powerful scenes with simple applications of broad washes. The celebrated painter and printmaker John Sell Cotman (1782–1842) could wield his brush boldly, in landscapes whose watercolor hues became increasingly brilliant. His distinguished contemporary David Cox (1783–1859), one the greatest British landscape painters, who studied briefly with Varley, used rough-textured papers to achieve bold effects, while Cox’s friend Peter De Wint (1784–1849) favored broad strokes of warm-toned watercolor.

Samuel Prout (1783–1852) used bright color to enliven his exquisite renderings of architectural subjects. William Turner (1789–1862) (called “Turner of Oxford” to distinguish him from his better-known contemporary) created precise, carefully composed landscapes of great subtlety ( 2000.242 ). John Linnell (1792–1882) ( 2000.238 ), like Turner of Oxford, studied with John Varley; Linnell also befriended (and commissioned work from) William Blake (1757–1827). Linnell’s artistic trajectory, like that of his son-in-law, Samuel Palmer (1805–1881), moved from a visionary early style to a mature naturalism to a high Victorian interest in bright color and striking atmospheric effects.

Societies During the period considered here (from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century), various informal sketching clubs and several professional societies structured the experience of watercolor painters and their audiences in Britain. Such groups—whose membership often overlapped, and whose histories, not surprisingly, were frequently entwined—allowed artists (professional and amateur) to share technical information and stimulated stylistic advances; they further served to promote the medium’s status relative to oil painting in an expanding, and increasingly competitive, market for art.

Beginning in about 1794, Dr. Thomas Monro (a physician specializing in mental illness, as well as an amateur artist and collector) held an evening “Academy” at his London home, where young artists (Turner, Girtin, Paul Sandby Munn, Louis Francia, and later, Cotman, the Varleys, William Henry Hunt, and Linnell) gathered to copy and color works from his collection, such as those by his patient, J. R. Cozens. In 1799, the “Brothers” sketching club held its first monthly meeting, at which members (including Girtin, Francia, Robert Ker Porter, George Samuel, John Charles Denham, Thomas Giles Worthington, Thomas Richard Underwood, Cotman, Augustus Wall Callcott, Munn, Joshua Cristall, and John Varley) treated a common subject.

The first years of annual public exhibitions in London offered watercolor painters various places to exhibit their work: with the Society of Artists of Great Britain (from 1760 to 1791); with the Free Society of Artists (from 1760 to 1783); and with the Royal Academy (after 1768). The conditions of display, however, were less than ideal. If not “skied” at the top of floor-to-ceiling displays, or overpowered by larger, brighter neighboring oils, they were relegated to dimly lit, crowded anterooms. The peripheral location of watercolor displays vis-à-vis the central exhibition space matched the lesser academic status accorded the medium by comparison to oil painting.

Not surprisingly, watercolor painters sought a more favorable forum. In 1804, a group of leading practitioners—William Frederick Wells, Samuel Shelley, William Henry Pyne, Robert Hills, Nicholas Pocock, Francis Nicholson, the Varleys, John Claude Nattes, and William Sawrey Gilpin—founded the Society of Painters in Water-Colours. Other members joined soon afterward—George Barret, Joshua Cristall, John Glover, William Havell, James Holworthy, Stephen Francis Rigaud—and the group (generally called the “Old Water-Colour Society”) held its first annual exhibition in 1805. Following a decree by Queen Victoria in 1881, the society’s name is now proceeded by the designation “Royal.”

In 1807, a group of painters excluded from this group—and therefore from its exhibitions—formed a rival institution, the New Society of Painters in Miniature and Water-Colours, or the Associated Artists in Water-Colours (renamed, in 1810, the Associated Painters in Water-Colours). Its members included William Westall, John Laporte, Samuel Owen, Hugh William Williams, Cox, and Blake; nonmember exhibitors included Francia, De Wint, Frederick Nash, Cotman, Luke Clennell, and Prout. By 1812, however, financial insolvency had brought an end to this group.

Further internal wrangling among the members of the “Old” Society led to the formation of the New Society of Painters in Water-Colours in 1831 by Joseph Powell, W. Cohen, James Fuge, Thomas Maisey, Giles Firman Phillips, George Sidney Shepherd, William B. S. Taylor, and Thomas Charles Wageman. It would evolve into the group now known as the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours.

Barker, Elizabeth E. “Watercolor Painting in Britain, 1750–1850.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)

Further Reading

Hardie, Martin. Water-Colour Painting in Britain . 3 vols. London: , 1966–68.

Wilton, Andrew, and Anne Lyles. The Great Age of British Watercolours, 1750–1880 . Exhibition catalogue. Munich: Prestel, 1993.

Additional Essays by Elizabeth E. Barker

  • Barker, Elizabeth E.. “ The Printed Image in the West: Mezzotint .” (October 2003)
  • Barker, Elizabeth E.. “ Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) .” (October 2004)
  • Barker, Elizabeth E.. “ John Constable (1776–1837) .” (October 2004)
  • Barker, Elizabeth E.. “ William Blake (1757–1827) .” (October 2004)

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This Is What Being in Your Twenties Was Like in 18th-Century London

A newly restored collection of letters describes a 27-year-old’s office job, social life and financial concerns beginning in 1719

Ella Feldman

Daily Correspondent


When Ben Browne was 27, he traded his small English town for the bustling streets of London to work as a law clerk. There, he led the typical life of a 20-something in a big city: His social life flourished, he fell in love and he was constantly stressed about money. Oh, and the year was 1719.

Some 65 letters that Browne sent to his father during this period are the focus of a new display at Townend , the historic Browne family home in Cumbria, England. Titled “ Letters From London ,” the exhibition sheds light on what life was like for a young person living in the city in the 18th century, offering vivid details about work, nightlife, romance and local gossip.

“These letters are so relatable, and they show nothing has really changed,” says Emma Wright, collections manager at Townend, in a statement from the National Trust.

In his handwritten letters, Browne described his new job training as a clerk to a lawyer, Richard Rowlandson. He complained about working long hours, copying legal documents from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. In one letter, he expressed frustration with his father’s decision to apprentice him to his employer for five years, rather than a shorter training period. “I have Lost the prime of my Youth,” he wrote.

Often, he asked his family for help, and “his concerns were not so different from those of today’s young people,” writes the Guardian ’s Harriet Sherwood. “Mainly: Please send money, everything is so expensive.”

Browne wrote that he needed money to pay rent—and to purchase stockings, breeches, wigs and other items he deemed necessary for his life in London. “Cloaths which [I] have now are but mean in Comparison [with] what they wear here,” he wrote in one letter.

Financial worries didn’t stop Browne from enjoying his time in the city. “Despite telling his father how short of cash he was, Browne maintained a lively social life, meeting friends and eating and drinking around Fleet Street , close to the Inns of Court ,” per the Guardian .

According to the National Trust, Browne’s descriptions of his social life evoke the scenes captured by William Hogarth , the satirical artist famous for depicting “London’s bawdy, boozy side,” as BBC News ’ Alastair Sooke wrote in 2015.

In one letter, Browne announced that he had married Mary Branch, his employer’s maid, after courting her in secret. He braced for a harsh response from his father, begging for his approval. Unfortunately, Browne only kept a few letters from his father, meaning most of his side of the correspondence was lost to time. 

However, based on the surviving letters, his father appears to have accepted his marriage to Mary. Soon after breaking the news, Browne wrote in a follow-up letter that he “shall ever acknowledge the many and endearing kindnesses and affectionate advices by me rec’d from so indulgent and affectionate father and mother.”

Browne’s letters also offer evocative depictions of 18th-century London. Soon after he arrived in the city, he wrote to his father about a “very great mobbing by the weavers of this town” who were “starved for want of trade.” He was referring to the violent protests led by Spitalfields silk weavers against imports of calico from India, which they said reduced demand for their products.

Although Browne offered up many details about his life in his letters, he didn’t tell his family everything. One aspect of his life that he hid from his father was his passion for buying books, a considerable expenditure. Scholars only learned of Browne’s collecting after discovering numerous books in the Townend library that were purchased, dated and annotated in his hand during the years he was in London. The titles included romances, novels and Shakespeare plays—“not what might be expected of a lawyer’s clerk,” writes the National Trust. Researchers don’t know how Browne, for all his lamenting about being broke, was able to afford them.

In the 19th century, George Browne, a descendant of the family, bound the letters in leather. Book conservator Ann-Marie Miller repaired the fragile missives before they went on display last month.

“It has been a pleasure to tread the same steps as George Browne, as I have charted, and then reconstructed, his work as a bookbinder,” says Miller in the statement. “He took a great deal of care to preserve the correspondence between father and son, and I have tried to honor his intentions. I feel as if I have also got to know young Ben, with his solicitous turn of phrase and the flourish of his handwriting.”

“ Letters From London ” is on view at Townend in Cumbria, England, through November 1.

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Ella Feldman | READ MORE

Ella Malena Feldman is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She examines art, culture and gender in her work, which has appeared in Washington City Paper , DCist and the Austin American-Statesman .

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18th or Eighteenth? How to Write Centuries in Formal Writing

18th or Eighteenth? How to Write Centuries in Formal Writing

2-minute read

  • 6th May 2022

If you’re writing a research paper , marketing copy, or other professional document, you’ll want to know how to write dates and centuries correctly. Should you use numbers or words? Is it necessary to hyphenate or capitalize centuries? And, finally, just when did the 18th century take place? Read on for more!

Numbers Versus Words

There is no hard-and-fast rule about when to use numbers and when to use words in writing centuries, as long as you are clear and consistent. A guideline that is often adopted is that centuries after the tenth are represented using numerals (e.g., “16th century”), whereas earlier centuries are spelled out in words (e.g., “seventh century”); this is the rule that is followed by this blog post. If you’re using a style guide , however, it’s always worth checking its specifications.

When to Hyphenate Centuries

When centuries are used as adjective phrases preceding the nouns they modify, they are hyphenated:

It’s a 21st-century problem.

The ninth-century church is situated in the heart of the village.

However, when a century is used as a noun phrase , you should not use a hyphen:

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The 20th century was an era of technological innovation.

Napoleon invaded Russia in the 19th century .

This is consistent with genera hyphenation rules .

When to Capitalize Centuries

There’s a simple answer to this question: never! While you may come across the capitalization of centuries in writing (e.g., “12th Century”), it’s never correct, as “century” is simply a measure of time and not a proper noun .

How to Number Centuries

This is a slightly more confusing issue. Many people assume that the 18th century, for example, lasted from 1800 to 1899; the clue’s in the name, right? Wrong! The first century started in the year 1 A.D. and lasted until the year 100, so therefore, the second century lasted from 101 to 200. Therefore, the 18th century consists of the 1700s rather than the 1800s.

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19th Century Women and Gender Studies Sources

The following resources are major tools for finding digitized texts related to the history of women and gender.

Explore multiple aspects of late 19th-20th century African American communities in different cities through pamphlets, newspapers and periodicals, correspondence, official records, reports, and oral histories. 

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  • Library of Congress Digital Collections Online access to manuscripts, ephemera, images, maps, and more. Includes several sets of materials related to the suffrage movement.
  • Discovering American Women's History Online Brings together hundreds of primary source digital collections covering U.S. women’s history.
  • Dovie Horvitz Collection The Dovie Horvitz Collection consists of over 1,300 images and scanned texts representing objects and printed matter that reflect the lives of women from the mid 1800s through the mid 1900s.
  • HEARTH: Home Economics Archive HEARTH is a core electronic collection of books and journals in Home Economics and related disciplines.
  • Human Rights Documentation Initiative From the U. of Texas, this site makes available archived web resources related to human rights organizations and issues.
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  • European Literature, 1790-1840: The Corvey Collection
  • Project Diana: An Online Human Rights Archive An international archive of human rights legal documentation, provided by Yale Law School.

Searchable books, serials, manuscripts, court records, and reference publications. Access available for parts 1-4: Debates over Slavery and Abolition, Slave Trade in the Atlantic World, The Institution of Slavery, and The Age of Emancipation.

  • Victorian Women Writers Project (VWWP) Online collection featuring works of lesser-known British women writers of the 19th century - poetry, novels, children's books, political pamphlets, religious tracts, histories, and more. VWWP contains scores of authors, both prolific and rare.
  • Women Working 1870-1930 Includes digitized books, manuscripts, and images from Harvard University Libraries and Museums on women in the U.S. economy from 1870-1930.

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  • UCLA Library Special Collections UCLA Library Special Collections is comprised of Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections; the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library History of Science and Medicine Special Collections; the Performing Arts Special Collections; the University Archives; and the Center for Oral History Research. Collections include a wide variety of literary rare books, as well as manuscripts and archival collections relating to specific individuals and organizations.
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  • June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives Located in West Hollywood, the Mazer collection is the only archive on the West Coast "dedicated exclusively to preserving lesbian history."
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  • Vern and Bonnie Bullough Collection on Sex and Gender Located at CSUN, the Bullough research collection documents the history of human sexuality, including prostitution, cross dressing, homosexuality, abortion, laws relating to sexual behavior, and sex education.
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research paper 18th century

Warship that sank in 18th century off Florida Keys is British

K EY WEST, Florida: National Park Service archaeologists identified a wrecked seagoing vessel discovered decades ago off the Florida Keys as a British warship that sank in the 18th century.

In a news release last week, the service said its archaeologists used new research to determine that the wreckage first spotted in 1993 near Dry Tortugas National Park is the HMS Tyger.

The findings were recently published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

The HMS Tyger, a Fourth-Rate, 50-gun frigate built in 1647, sank in 1742 after running aground on the reefs of the Dry Tortugas while on patrol in the War of Jenkins Ear between Britain and Spain.

In a statement, maritime archaeologist Josh Marano said, "This discovery highlights the importance of preservation in place as future generations of archeologists, armed with more advanced technologies and research tools, are able to reexamine sites and make new discoveries."

Officials said archaeologists surveyed the site in 2021 and found five cannons several hundred yards from the main wreck site.

They added that the guns were determined to be those thrown overboard when HMS Tyger first ran aground.

After the ship was wrecked, some 300 crew members were marooned for more than two months on what is currently Garden Key.

They then built seagoing vessels from salvaged pieces of the wrecked HMS Tyger and traveled 700 miles (1,125 kilometers) through enemy waters to British-controlled Port Royal, Jamaica.

In line with international treaties, the remains of HMS Tyger and its related artifacts are the sovereign property of the UK government.


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