Philosophy from Puritanism to Enlightenment

Philosophy from Puritanism to Enlightenment
Philosophy from Puritanism to
By Rick Kennedy
Published in Encyclopedia of American Cultural
and Intellectual History, eds. Mary Kupiec Cayton
and Peter Williams (New York: Charles Scribner’s
Sons, 2000).
Increase Mather, 1688
If philosophy is defined as the love of wisdom, the desire to understand one’s place in the
symphony of the cosmos, then colonial America probably had more than its share of philosophers
and creative philosophies. The colonial period of United States history is defined by multiple
contests of politics, religions, cultures, and ideas. Hopes were often artificially jacked up and the
rate of failure was high. In such an unsettled situation, many people were encouraged to think
deeply and pursue wisdom.
Using this definition, possibly the most creative and widespread philosophical movement
in colonial America had nothing to do with either Puritanism or the Enlightenment. Beginning
probably in the 1730s and spreading South, North, and East from the Ohio Valley was an intertribal discussion on what encroachment by Europeans meant for Indians. The most influential
philosophers of this movement were prophets of a new world order. The most famous of these was
Philosophy from Puritanism to Enlightenment
Neolin, the Delaware Prophet, who preached that the Indians had collectively sinned by adopting
“White people’s ways and nature.” He told a Descartes-style story of sitting alone by the fire,
“musing and greatly concerned about the evil ways he saw prevailing among the Indians” when a
man appeared who taught him a pure religion that would restore all Indians to a right relationship
with the cosmos. Thousands of Indians, seeking wisdom and ready to act, followed Neolin and
other prophets in ritual vomiting, witch-hunts, and rejection of European tools and alcohol. Some
followers, such as the Ottawa warrior Pontiac, resorted to war in order to jump-start the new Indian
Lovers of wisdom like Neolin and his fellow prophets abound in colonial America. So do
Jesuits, Franciscans, Puritans, Quakers, German Pietists, humanitarians, and political reformers.
No doubt every colonial minister, like Neolin, mused by the fire about the sin of humanity and
relied on the divine revelation of scriptures for a program of renewal. There were a number of
highly educated missionaries, such as Jean de Brébeuf in New France, who developed ways to
communicate Christianity to the Huron and the Iroquois. We know of many personal crises that
led to deep introspection, for example when William Byrd II in Virginia disinterred and opened the
coffin of his father in an attempt to understand his own place in the world. The love of wisdom was
often made manifest in ephemeral ways, as when Judge Samuel Sewall and Cotton Mather
discussed the nature of humanity when they happened to meet in a Boston alley with the same
purpose of relieving their bladders. Since the love of wisdom was not tied to formal education,
women could participate fully, as when Ann Bradstreet wrote a poem “upon the burning of our
I, started up, the light did spye,
And to my God my heart did cry
To strengthen me in my Distresse
And not to leave me succourlesse.
Then coming out beheld a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And, when I could no longer look,
I blest his Name that gave and took,
That layd my goods now in the dust:
Yea so it was, and so ‘twas just.
It was his own: it was not mine;
Far be it that I should repine.
If philosophy is the love of wisdom, the desire to find one’s place in the symphony of the
cosmos, then colonial America had more than its share of philosophers and a multitude of creative
philosophies. If philosophy, however, is defined as a focused project to understand a specific
problem of reality using the tools of systematic reasoning, then only a small number of people in
colonial America can be defined as philosophers and there is a limited amount of philosophical
activity—all of it derived from European precedents. Defined this way, philosophy is a technical
field within the tradition of Western education, distinct from but overlapping theology and natural
science. This latter definition is the traditional definition of philosophy and will be the definition
used here. The goal is not to be exclusive; rather, using this limited definition will help clarify the
intellectual relationship of British colonials within their European intellectual tradition.
Significant participation in technical philosophy usually requires a particular
environment. There needs to be a access to great books and ideas. There needs to be means of
Philosophy from Puritanism to Enlightenment
communication—regular meetings, institutions, and probably a printing press. There also needs to
be a community of people who share an educational heritage where they learned the same
vocabulary and techniques of inquiry. In the seventeenth century north of Mexico, only the
Puritans of the Boston area offered such a situation. The Puritans’ most intellectually technical
debates were in theology and their most influential practical thinking was political; however, they
were also much interested logic and moral philosophy. In 1636 they founded Harvard College and
nurtured her for the next hundred years by imitating the highest standards of English and Dutch
universities along with the innovative dissenting academies of England. Printing presses were
available in the Boston throughout the century along with booksellers, private libraries, and a
community of philosophically-minded men and women.
Philosophy Practiced by the Puritans
Puritanism was not a philosophy. The term was created to describe the extremist
tendencies of people who thought the Elizabethan Settlement fostered an impure, compromised
Protestantism. Puritan leaders were often highly educated and believed strongly in rational
religion. Puritanism was initially nurtured in the 1560s and 70s at several colleges at Cambridge
University in England. The founders of Harvard College were by-in-large Cambridge graduates
who desired to recreate their alma mater in America—hence renaming the college town
Cambridge. The curriculum included first one, then two years of logic, much math and natural
philosophy, metaphysics, and divinity. M.A. requirements included the option of writing a
synopsis of a logic system. Yearly commencements were also well-attended intellectual fiestas
where Latin speeches attempted to answer knotty philosophical questions such as:
-Is form derived from the power of matter?
-Does the will always follow the last dictate of the intellect?
-Is the spirit of man distinct from his soul?
-Is metaphysical infinity to be distinguished from mathematical infinity?
As much as Cambridge in America fostered a lively intellectual atmosphere, the Puritans
tended to encourage students to follow the lead of accepted authors, usually fellow Puritans who
manifested a dynamic mix of piety and intellect. The two most influential of these accepted
authors were Alexander Richardson (c.1565-1613 or1621) and William Ames (1576-1633). The
philosophic influence of Richardson and Ames on Harvard’s first fifty years would be hard to
overestimate, especially their support for the logic system of Petrus Ramus (1515?-1572).
Increase Mather described “the profoundly learned and godly” Richardson as an intellectual
Gideon with Ames as a later champion who “hath improved Richardson’s method and Principles to
great advantage.”
The role of Richardson and Ames as model textbook authors was what made each so
influential in America. Colonial American philosophy thrived because of textbooks. The problem,
of course, with philosophy practiced upon a foundation of textbooks, is that teachers and students
rarely read the actual works of the people they talked about. The names of Plato, Aristotle, or
Descartes, and even Ramus, were tossed about by people who had only read textbook authors
discussing these thinkers. Also, textbooks are almost always simplifications rather than
amplifications. Complexities and intricate technical matters were often lost in the transition into
textbook form.
Aside from mere student synopses, the first philosophy books written in America were
John Eliot’s The Logick Primer (1672) and Increase Mather’s Catechismus Logicus ex Petri Rami,
Philosophy from Puritanism to Enlightenment
Page from student notebook
version of Charles Morton’s
Alexandri Richardsoni, et Guilielmi Amesii (1675). Eliot’s The Logick Primer was a
highly reductionist missionary venture, written in English and Natick, to teach logic to local
Indians. Mather’s Catechismus Logicus reduced Ramist logic to a short catechism. The most
influential textbooks written at Harvard were by William Brattle who, hired as a tutor by Increase
Mather in 1685, wrote two Cartesian logic textbooks that were long used at Harvard. Charles
Morton’s A Logick System embodied Renaissance Aristotelianism and was the most pedagogically
creative of all the logic textbooks used at Harvard, but it was probably written in England before
he came to America in 1686. All of these logic textbooks, except Eliot’s, appear only in student
notebooks as manuscript transcriptions. Harvard’s first formally published logic textbook was
Compendium Logicae in 1735, a work misattributed to William Brattle.
The various types of logic taught by Puritans at Harvard followed Renaissance patterns of
emphasis first on analysis of knowledge itself, then synthesizing axioms and demonstrations.
Logic was not narrowly abstract, but rather, was at the core of a well-lived Puritan life. In the
Ramist system the student dug deep to discover the fundamental bits of what is known. These bits
Philosophy from Puritanism to Enlightenment
were called arguments. Arguments must then be assembled together into axioms, then into
syllogisms and geometry-style demonstrations. Alexander Richardson’s The Logicians SchoolMaster proclaimed that
to see a thing in the cause, that is, the argument…that is our intelligentia, to make axioms
is our scientia, to discourse is our sapientia [wisdom], to apply everything in time and
place is our prudentia, to work the like our Art [of logic], these are the things that make a
man a scholler, a wise man, ergo a man that shall take this course in his studies shall be an
exquisite man in every way.
Puritans were optimistic. They believed that the pursuer of truth would find it. Entwined
with this, they believed that the pursuer of the good would be set on the right path. William Brattle
wrote in 1686:
Man’s mind being obnoxious to much error both in its searches for truth, and pursuits
after that which is good, two arts have been sought out; the one to aid the understanding,
the other to direct the will; this being called Ethicks; that Logick.
Logic and ethics were the two great concerns of Puritan philosophy. Even though tutor
Brattle might categorize them separately, they overlapped extensively. Ethics, or moral
philosophy, encompassed the study of the soul and its faculties, especially the intellect and the will.
Right reasoning and right living were rooted in a well functioning soul. Charles Morton (16261698) was Puritan New England’s most systematic student of moral philosophy. Norman Fiering
calls him “America’s first professional philosopher.” Morton was born in Cornwall in England,
educated at Cambridge and Oxford, and operated for many years a private academy run out of his
house on the south edge of London. During this time he wrote thoughtful and intertwined
textbooks on logic, physics, ethics, and pneumatology. Writing multiple textbooks was normal for
a dynamic educator in the seventeenth century; however, Morton, after immigrating in 1686, went
further by publishing in Boston America’s first purely philosophical work not designed as a
textbook: The Spirit of Man (1692).
Before Jonathan Edwards, Morton was America’s best student of souls—the souls of
animals, humans, and angels. Morton’s Pneumaticks is a textbook-style overview of souls in
general while The Spirit of Man is a monograph on various characteristics and temperaments
(spirits) within the human soul. Although Morton offered much descriptive psychology; the goal
of the book was to help readers “know thyself” and pursue habits and temperaments consistent
with divine grace.
Charles Morton:
This Dividing asunder of Soul and Spirit; Is it a Philosophical Distinction, of the
Powers and Faculties, into Superior and Inferior (as some would have it)? I pray to what
purpose? Is it to shew the Superior, as clear, and untainted by the Fall; but that the Inferiour
and Bruital, or sensual part is violated and corrupt, as some of the Heathen Philosophers have
confusedly suggested? They say indeed that NOUS (the mind) is … a Sacred, and Divine
Thing not inclined to any thing Disallowed by Right Reason; till it come to be Incarcerated in
the Body; and then clog’d by a Dull Material Flesh, and yoked with a couple of other silly
Souls (the Sensitive of Brutes, and the Vegetative of Plants). It became obstructed in all
vertuous aspiring; and born down to Sensual and Inferiour Acts and Objects. Thus they
Dreamt; and does the Scripture give any Countenance to such Fancies? I think not.
-The Spirit of Man (1692)
Philosophy from Puritanism to Enlightenment
The existence of Harvard College, multiple locally-written manuscript textbooks in logic, and the
formal publication of Eliot’s The Logick Primer and Morton’s The Spirit of Man in seventeenthcentury Massachusetts, all three are extraordinary in the context of what can be expected from a
provincial colony in its first century. New England’s dominant claim on the intellectual history of
the United States was staked early on by an amazingly vigorous people who honored rationality
and the Western tradition of liberal arts education far beyond any other American colony.
Philosophy was always the handmaid of theology for the Puritans, but logic was to be
applied in theology. This dynamic relationship kept Puritans from complacent dogmatism. Their
emphasis on rational religion also encouraged the study of natural philosophy.
The most significant work in natural philosophy done by the Puritans was in alchemy and
astronomy. George Starkey graduated from Harvard in 1646 and was part of an alchemical circle
in New England. After immigrating to England in his twenties, he took the pen name Eirenaeus
Philalethes and became one of England’s most influential alchemists. John Foster and Thomas
Brattle were the most influential students of astronomy when their measurements of the Comet of
1680 were eventually used by Isaac Newton to support his work on universal gravitation.
In natural philosophy, as in logic, the Puritans of New England were very provincial,
depending much on whatever books or ideas might accidentally come their way in a book-sellers
box or might appear in one of the intellectual periodicals that made it to America. Although
quoted in Newton’s Principia of 1687, Thomas Brattle wrote in 1705 that he had still never seen a
copy. In 1723, the Harvard library still owned no copy of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human
Understanding (1690). The library only owned the short, preview form, contained within The
Young Students Library (1692), a book that probably didn’t make it to the colonies until the turn of
the century. Cotton Mather’s The Christian Philosopher (1721) is mostly a collection of English
descriptions of “the best discoveries in Nature” written a quarter to a half-century earlier.
Possibly the most innovative area of moral philosophy practiced by the Puritans was
political. The creation of a republican system mixing church membership and voting, the many
sermons and published treatises on civil polity, and the body of judicial arguments and decisions
constitute a large mass of practical philosophy. Civil polity for the Puritans; however, was rarely
discussed in terms of technical philosophy. One exception was John Wise’s Vindication of the
Government of New England Churches (1713) that argued from the foundation of the “natural”
and “civil being of man.” Wise argues the cause of democracy and for the state’s responsibility to
protect each citizen’s rights and happiness. In rising above practical Puritan politics into political
philosophy, however, Wise leaves behind what is most creative in Puritan politics and falls into
simply importing British political philosophy to the colony.
Maybe Wise’s tract should not be considered Puritan at all since it was published in New
York at one of the new presses in America outside Puritan control and its publication date crosses
over into the period of the American Enlightenment.
Philosophy Practiced in the Enlightenment
The American Enlightenment began in the 1690s and was fully alive by the 1730s when
philosophy began to be practiced outside of the bounds of Puritan New England when
Philadelphia, Williamsburg, and New York established communities of imported books,
indigenous printing, and philosophical training. Like the term Puritanism, the term Enlightenment
does not signify a school of philosophy. For the study of technical philosophy in colonial America
the phrase “from Puritanism to the Enlightenment” must be understood as the cultural context that
expanded from the Boston-area and Puritan-supported works of the seventeenth century to more
economically and religiously diverse urban-oriented pockets throughout the colonies in the
Philosophy from Puritanism to Enlightenment
eighteenth century. This transition is best seen in the wild expansion of what we would call small
religious colleges. Harvard was founded in 1636, but at the turn of the century two new colleges in
Connecticut and Williamsburg were founded. By the Revolution there were nine colonial colleges,
one in the South, four in the middle colonies, and four in New England. Philosophy, no longer
only practiced by the Puritans, was being practiced widely in the colonies by diverse communities.
In general “The Enlightenment” is a dangerous term. So many definitions and
characteristics have been attached to the term that it has almost become meaningless. Careful
scholars usually speak of types and regions of enlightenments rather than “The Enlightenment.” In
American history, the term is useful as an umbrella over the general intellectual culture of British
America from the 1690s through the Age of Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Optimism was a key
feature of this enlightenment—optimism about the powers of the human mind and the place of
modern thought in relation to that which had come before it. “In the beginning,” John Locke
wrote, “all the world was America.” Colonial Americans during the enlightenment seem to have
taken for granted Francis Bacon’s argument that ancient thinkers were the young while modern
thinkers were the mature.
Americans in every colony and eventually in the Revolution embraced the chance of
creating innovative governments. Long before Thomas Paine declared that Americans have it in
their power to create the world anew, cities on a hill were being created throughout America. John
Locke, himself, apparently played a major role in writing the Fundamental Constitutions of
Carolina, and Anglican clergy such as Thomas Bray joined with soldier/politicians such as Francis
Nicholson and James Oglethorpe to transform Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia into innovative,
rationally constructed, colonies.
Granting the increasing ethnic and social diversity of eighteenth-century America, it is
amazing to find that the college curricula, philosophical activity, and the general intellectual life of
those interested in an intellectual life in the North, South, and Middle colonies was amazingly
unified. The books read, the ideas most popular, and even terms and phrases seem to have been
standardized throughout the colonies. When the Second Continental Congress gathered to edit
Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence there was no discussion of the
preamble’s assumptions and language about natural law, nature’s God, and the unalienable rights
of man. Upon later reflection, John Adams noted that Thomas Jefferson was simply saying what
everyone in the room already believed. Such unanimity of thought is the result of an American
enlightenment. The fact that the Second Continental Congress cited no biblical authorities in
support of their action is also a measure of the difference between seventeenth-century Puritanism
and the eighteenth-century colonial enlightenment.
The American enlightenment expanded beyond seventeenth-century Puritanism the range
of accepted authorities and the allowable boundaries of philosophical discussion. The culture
remained generally Christian, but Christianity no longer dominated the intellectual culture in the
way it had for Puritans. Divine revelation came to be treated in widely diverse ways and
sometimes even denied. The laws of Carolina made merely the cursory demand that every
property owner must “acknowledge a God.” The American Philosophical Society, following the
lead of the Royal Society of London, had a rule disallowing religion as a topic of discussion.
Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin could both believe deeply in the sovereignty and
goodness of God, one working within the constraints of orthodox Christianity and the other freely
unconcerned with orthodoxy.
Logic, moral philosophy, and divinity remained at the core of every college curriculum,
but it is characteristic of the American enlightenment that there was an increasing emphasis on
natural philosophy. John Locke and Isaac Newton were the names every student had to be able to
Philosophy from Puritanism to Enlightenment
discuss, but textbook reductions of major European systems of thought were still the dominant
means of spreading the new learning.
The most popular logic textbook of the age was the hymnwriter Isaac Watts’ Logic: or the
Right Use of Reason (1724) which praised and simplified Locke’s Essay Concerning Human
Understanding. Watts’s textbook emphasized the orthodoxy Christian aspects of Locke: it
assumes the existence of God, clarifies the highest certainty of divine revelation in holy scripture,
and advocates procedures of analysis and synthesis not much different than Brattle’s Compendium
of Logick. It is hard to judge, but the logic and other philosophical works of Isaac Watts may have
been the most widely read philosophy books of the century. There was a popular story of the
Revolution that when the British were attacking Princeton, an American commander declared that
if the ammunition ran out, they would stuff the cannons with Watts’ books and continue firing.
Another source for much of the American philosophy taught in colonial colleges were the
Scottish universities which were in the midst of a golden age that produced Francis Hutchinson,
Thomas Reid, David Hume, and Adam Smith. The term “common sense” that Thomas Paine used
to spur the Revolution was the theme of the Scottish philosophers. Scottish common sense
philosophy decreed the ability of all people to immediately grasp important aspects of reality.
Politically, the philosophy tended to support democratic individualism. Religiously, it focused on
individual experience and intuition. In logic and ethics it supported the ability of people to reason
and live rightly if they followed their common sense. Thomas Jefferson was greatly influenced
philosophically at William and Mary by a Scot professor named William Small, and the Scot John
Witherspoon, as president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), was a powerful philosophical
influence in the middle colonies.
Witherspoon (1722/23-1794) came to America in 1768 and his posthumously published
Lectures on Moral Philosophy and Eloquence (1800) were gathered from the course on moral
philosophy taught every year to the seniors. For Witherspoon ethics did not need to be derived
from divine revelation and could instead be constructed out of simple observation with a bit of
common sense. In his classes sat many of the leaders of the American Revolution, especially
James Madison, and his greatest influence may have been to shield his students from the deeply
abstract and religious influence of his predecessor Jonathan Edwards, encouraging instead a
simpler, more straight-forward pursuit of virtue.
In general, the American enlightenment was led by conscientious teachers such as
Witherspoon. Teaching duties encouraged people to think systematically, integrating
epistemology, logic, natural philosophy, mathematics, metaphysics, divinity, and ethics. Genteel
dilettantes might spend short spurts of time on particular topics, especially observational natural
science, but systematic philosophic inquiry and publication was largely in the hands of teachers.
Samuel Johnson (1696-1772) Puritan convert to Anglicanism, tutor at Yale, minister, and
eventual president of King’s College in New York, exemplifies the connection between America’s
most systematic philosophical work and its educational institutions. As an eighteen year old
grammar school tutor in Connecticut, he compiled a Ramist logic. Diligent study out of a box of
books that had been sent over for what would eventually become Yale College caused the young
tutor to be repudiate Ramus for Locke and the “New Learning.” In 1729 he was drawn to the
immaterialism of George Berkeley who happened to settle in Rhode Island for two years.
Berkeley argued that, since the primary distinction of the cosmos was between the perceived and
the perceiver, we should think of reality as mental rather than physical. For Berkeley, this
recognition allowed him to merge the essentials of Christianity, Locke, and Newton into a rational
Johnson appreciated this synthesis and was in close contact with Berkeley for two years.
When Berkeley returned to Britain he left a legacy of nearly 900 books in the Yale library and a
Philosophy from Puritanism to Enlightenment
deep impression on Johnson. In 1746 Johnson published an elementary textbook on ethics, then in
1752 his Elementa Philosophica which included epistemology, logic, and moral philosophy. The
Elementa Philosophica was dedicated to Berkeley and designed to serve young students in
colonial colleges. Like the work of Charles Morton, Johnson’s Elementa Philosophica exemplifies
the creative efforts of a diligent and open-minded provincial teacher. As with Morton, and again
with Edwards, the reward for a life of diligent philosophy was the offer of a college presidency.
Although America’s colonial colleges were the focal points for integrated and serious
thinking about philosophy during the American Enlightenment, colonial America’s two most
significant philosophers, the only two to have transatlantic influence, were not teachers and would
not call themselves philosophers. Benjamin Franklin always referred to himself as a printer, and
Jonathan Edwards was a minister.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), like most colonial Americans, was highly interested in
natural philosophy and ethics—and the role of a sovereign God in each. Not formally educated,
Franklin liked to participate in self-help philosophic groups such as the Junto and the American
Philosophical Society. His brilliance on the subject of electricity and light-hearted writing often
clouds recognition of his years of disciplined study and intimate correspondence and conversation
with men more recognized for deeper thinking.
Born among the Puritans of Boston, at age sixteen Franklin’s first published writings spoofed
Cotton Mather’s Essays to do Good. At nineteen, a runaway in London, he published A
Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain (1725) which exposes his high
philosophical aspirations. But Franklin realized he could never play the role of gentlemanphilosopher. He would always be socially constricted by his tradesman status. For the rest of his
life, even after attaining wealth and fame, Franklin brilliantly lived a role as homespun, American
philosopher. His best work was in grasping the mathematical principles of what would become
social science and supplying a foundation for personal and social ethics based on usefulness.
Never again attempting anything close to a systematic or serious book on ethics, he encouraged an
image of himself as embodying a particular American and enlightened ethic. In popular
literature—often bawdy and/or humorous—he presented his moral philosophy in a way more
influential than most of his contemporaries.
Benjamin Franklin:
…I had form’d most of my ingenious Acquaintances into a Club, for mutual
Improvement, which we call’d the Junto. We met on Friday Evenings. The Rules I drew up,
requir’d that every Member in his Turn should produce one or more Queries on any Point of
Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the Company, and once in three
Months produce and read an Essay of his own Writing on any Subject he pleased. Our
Debates were to be under the Direction of a President, and to be conducted in the sincere
Spirit of Enquiry after Truth, without fondness for Dispute, or Desire of Victory; and to
prevent Warmth, all Expressions of Positiveness in Opinion, and of direct Contradiction,
were after some time made contraband & prohibited under small pecuniary Penalties.
-The Autobiography
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a Puritan minister who responded to practical
religious matters of his day with books so deep, disciplined, and richly integrated that they gained
a transatlantic following and continue to be studied for more than mere historical interest. The
existence of Edwards in colonial America should not be used as evidence that colonial America
was maturing intellectually. Edwards was an anomaly. He was a provincial thinker reliant on
Philosophy from Puritanism to Enlightenment
whatever books made their way to the colonies, while at the same time, he so far out did every
other colonial philosopher in his work that he cannot be considered representative.
Edwards’ most significant philosophical interest was in moral philosophy, especially
psychology. His A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Freedom of the Will, essay on The
Nature of True Virtue, and unfinished collection of notes on “The Mind” stand as major creative
works rooted in an Augustinian-Calvinistic tradition yet fully participating in the dynamic
philosophical dialogue of the early British and French enlightenments.
Jonathan Edwards:
The beauty of the world consists
wholly of sweet mutual consents,
either within itself, or with the
Supreme Being. As to the corporeal
world, though there are many other
sorts of consents, yet the sweetest
and most charming beauty of it is its
resemblance of spiritual beauties.
The reason is that spiritual beauties
are infinitely the greatest, and
bodies being but the shadows of
beings, they must be so much the
more charming as they shadow forth
spiritual beauties. This beauty is
peculiar to natural things, it
surpassing the art of man.
-“The Beauty of the World”
Fundamental to Edwards’ philosophy is a radical view of God’s transcendence and
sovereignty. Similar to Berkeley, Edwards believes that the existence of the world is in the mind
of God, that all that is perceived—matter, gravity, friction, etc.—is nothing but God’s activity. The
ideas of God so constitute reality that the Trinity has to exist: the Son is the perfect idea God has of
himself and the love of God for the image he has begotten is so real that it is the Holy Spirit.
Excellency, along with the highest beauty and virtue, can only occur in concert with God. People
were morally free in that they could follow their wills, but deep within the soul God’s grace had
predisposed the will to choose at is did.
The work of Franklin and Edwards show the highest possibilities for philosophy on the
intellectual frontier of British Empire. The teachers, students, and textbooks of the colleges, first
in Massachusetts then broadly spread throughout the colonies, were the life blood of philosophy in
Philosophy from Puritanism to Enlightenment
the colonies. Logic and moral philosophy were the principal focus of pure philosophical inquiry
with theology and natural philosophy usually intricately entwined.
Colonial political philosophy was of increasing importance; however, it was curiously
unphilosophical. Colonial politicians, especially those who would support the Revolution, seem to
have unreflectively adopted a jumble of assumptions about God, natural rights, personal autonomy,
political corruption, and civic virtue developed by opposition politicians in England over the
course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This jumble of assumptions has been called
“republicanism,” “radical Whig ideology,” and other names; however, such names should not be
taken to imply a philosophical consistency or systematic organization. The delegates who signed
the Declaration of Independence could share vague terms and assumptions, but their work was not
the result of intentional inquiry into political philosophy. The aftermath of the Revolution, itself,
would encourage creative and systematic political philosophy; however, colonial American
political philosophy never got beyond the relatively superficial way John Wise imported English
To define philosophy in the way here used should not be used to diminish the thousands
of deeply thoughtful people in colonial America; however, with this definition we grasp better the
meaning of colonial America: a place to which the Course of Empire, as Berkeley believed, was
making its way westward in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Primary Sources:
Aristotelian and Cartesian Logic at Harvard: Charles Morton’s “A Logick System” and William
Brattle’s “Compendium of Logick. Edited by Rick Kennedy. Publications of the Colonial Society
of Massachusetts, vol 67 (1995).
Edwards, Jonathan The Works of Jonathan Edwards. 13 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press,
Franklin, Benjamin Writings. New York: Library of America, 1987.
Johnson, Samuel The Philosopher, vol. 2. Samuel Johnson: His Career and Writings. Edited by
Herbert and Carol Schneider. New York: Columbia University Press, 1929.
Kennedy, Rick and Thomas Knowles “Increase Mather’s ‘Catechismus Logicus’: A Translation
and Analysis of the Role of a Ramist Catechism at Harvard.” Proceedings of the American
Antiquarian Society (1998).
Mather, Cotton The Christian Philosopher. Edited by Winton U. Solberg. Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 1994.
Secondary Sources:
Anderson, Douglas The Radical Enlightenments of Benjamin Franklin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1997.
Bridenbaugh, Carl and Jessica Rebels and Gentlemen: Philadelphia in the Age of Franklin. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
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Butterfield, L. H. John Witherspoon Comes to America. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
Daniel, Stephen H. The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards: A Study in Divine Semiotics.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Ellis, Joseph J. The New England Mind in Transition: Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, 1696-1772.
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