Reading Revolutions: Intellectual History American Enlightenment

UMF Libra Scholar, Gordon S. Wood

Members of the UMF and Farmington communities alike were treated to a guest lecture by Dr. Gordon S. Wood this past Sunday. Wood, who earned his doctorate at Harvard, has been teaching at Brown University since 1969. He is perhaps best known for his 1994 Pulitzer-Prize-winning work: The Radicalism of the American Revolution. His talk for the evening focused on the American Enlightenment.

Dr. Wood introduced enlightenment as a primary building block for America as a nation. Early Americans considered themselves pioneers of enlightenment, and they used this self view to establish and define the nation, a first in world history. Europeans, on the other hand, saw America as distant and barbaric. Dr. Wood compared the relationship between Britain and America to that of the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland. The Scottish Lowlands were also experiencing enlightenment at the time.

The lecture continued to elaborate on the view eighteenth century Americans took of their own enlightenment. Men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were stepping out of the monarchial traditions of their fathers and into a republican ideal in which all men are created equal. The people became citizens – individuals with equal say. Book learning was no longer reserved for the social elite. Eighteenth century Americans believed they have erased the idea of elitism in the first place! Here, according to Dr. Wood, we see the beginnings of the concept of a liberal arts education.

Americans looked to education to help further the homogenization process. Homogeneity was considered a strength – the glue that would hold the nation together as its absence kept other nations apart. One thing, above all others, separated early America from the developed nations of Europe: language. America has, from the very start, committed itself to a national language. Places like Spain and England represented unmixed globs of peoples. America, on the other hand, represented a "melting pot" that achieved homogeneity, to a certain degree, through the presence of one language that is spoken by nearly all its people.

An interesting subtopic Dr. Wood brought up in his lecture was that of penal reform. Eighteenth century America indeed took bold steps in this area. Enlightenment apparently softened the nation's views of crime and punishment. America embraced the idea that perhaps criminal activity has its roots in environmental influences. What's more, they dared to think, maybe these criminals can be helped! Instead of killing all criminals without regard, Americans built a hierarchy of punishment based on severity and potential for recovery. Though the American views on crime and punishment continued to evolve, we find that the basis for the modern correctional facility is established during this time.

Dr. Wood closed the lecture by touching lightly on the hypocrisies of America's self view during this period of enlightenment. Eighteenth century America was not the climax of enlightenment. Instead, it served as a unique environment for the construction of a base for continual enlightenment. America's current values are rooted in those established during this time period. The American enlightenment represents the beginning of America's journey toward "true" civilization.

The topic of enlightenment in post-revolution America is most certainly a broad one. Dr. Wood deserves applause for even attempting to summarize it in an hour. His lecture allowed the audience a look into the "enlightened" mind of an eighteenth century American and emphasized the need to understand history through the eyes of both the historian and the story's subject. It was a scholastic pleasure to attend this Pulitzer-prize-winning doctor's presentation.

by:  Natalie Thomson
      Class of 2008





Following the lecture, Dr. Wood answered questions from the audience.










Members of the audience examine rare editions from the
 Remnant Trust collection.
Mary Flint looks at Magna Carta as friends look on.



Thomson, Natalie.  "American Enlightenment."  Summary of a lecture by Gordon S. Wood.  University of Maine at Farmington, September 25, 2005.  Retrieved _______.  <>.


Marilyn Shea, 2005