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L’Amérique et le France

II. L’État, l’idéologie et la révolution

The revolution that failed : the cult of reason in young america

Ronald Creagh

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1The lights of religion always shine on the American scene ; the religious bent of the American mind is an undisputed fact. An insignificant minority denies God. Reference to Deity is traditional in public life. Churches, Sects and Cults recruit more easily than in any country in the West, even within the working classes. Some of these institutions are highly visible, and many more form influential pressure groups. In matter of religion, there seems to be an American exceptionalism.

2Among the various explanations of this situation, it is argued that the disestablishment created a different setting. The separation of Church and State removed the religious constraints : it let the population choose whatever faith they elected to embrace.

3Although free thought antedated the rise of capitalism, the American mood is so fashioned that every citizen is invited to suck the milk of liberal philosophy, and to proclaim the necessity of free competition, of free enterprise, and of free will. Such values would be embarrassing if they were not accompanied by freedom of thought.

4Yet, if the nation cultivates religion and freedom of thought, it excludes atheism from the range of possible choices. Ironically, every American considers himself a free thinking person, even in religious matters, but must avoid to appear as a freethinker, because unbelief results in marginality.

5Another explication emphasizes the achievements of Churches in America, notably their contribution to the social integration of multifarious ethnic groups.

6Such an argument begs the question : How do we know that such functions were necessary, or that they could not have been fulfilled in other (and maybe better) ways by alternative organizations? And is this argument historically accurate? Did not many former freethinking or atheistic circles assume the same functions? In almost every ethnic group, they organized mutual aid associations, banks, unions, singing clubs, social gatherings, and so on.

7The triumph of religion over atheism calls for some qualification of the traditional explanations. One must consider some neglected dimensions, in particular the status of reason within American culture.

8 It seems, indeed, that in the formative period of the American nation, the Deists failed to establish their "cult of reason". The failure of this ideological revolution had a significant impact on the shaping of the American mind.


  • 1 Deism during the American and French revolutions has been well documented by Gustav A. KOCH, in his (...)

9Deism, in its varied appearances, is a most important fact in American religious history, especially when it is remembered that a great number of generally sectarian groups, such as the Quakers or the Unitarians, have often limited the content of their faith to this sole belief1.

  • 2 Josiah QUINCY. The History of Harvard University, Cambridge, John Owen, 1840, vol. 2, p. 139.

10Deism antedated the American revolution, but took on various forms. In New England, it was a clandestine affair, even when it was fashionable. Middle and upper classes maintained all external signs of religious affiliation. Yet, at Harvard, "deistic principles were openly proclaimed in 1775"2. In Virginia, the Anglican Church was the officially established denomination ; it remained indifferent to creed and morals privately held as long as the forms were decently observed, and everyone in his place at the parish church on Sunday. The aristocratic planters adopted deism in a manner quite different from the middle-classes of Massachusetts. Their disbelief was unlike the cult of reason : it was a philosophical mood proper to a gentleman. It was a way of placing oneself in a position of arbiter above the conflicting religious groups, in a closely-knit set that looked with horror at a party system.

11In Pennsylvania, there was no established Church and more openness to other currents. The Philadelphia Library Society received many works from the European Rationalists and Deists. The "Academy", established by Benjamin Franklin in 1744, was an important cultural center ; it maintained close links with many scientists in the world, and kept abreast of the French materialistic theories.

12There soon was much discussion about Deism in the coffee-houses of Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Magazine, with Thomas Paine as its editor, and the largest circulation ever reached by an American publication of the period, indulged into anticlerical satire, rejected the Christian Providence, and explored the relations between Church and Liberty. Those mild iconoclasms were more instructive of Paine’s religious evolution than of infidelity in those times.

  • 3 Cf. Richard HOFSTADTER. The Idea of a Party System. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1970 (...)
  • 4 C. BLOUNT. Oracles of Reason. London : 1693 ; H. St John. BOLINBROKE, Works, London : 1754 ; Anthon (...)

13There also existed "a transatlantic conspiracy" of American radicals with British Dissenters to hinder the establishment of the Church of England3. Moreover, the importation of books and papers broke the practical monopoly of the Church over the printed matters. The influence came from the British Isles with men like John Locke or Isaac Newton, Herbert of Cherbury, Anthony Shaftesbury, John Collins and William Godwin4. English theologians with a radical bent corresponded with Boston clergymen of same inclinations.

  • 5 Cf. Richard J. PURCELL, Connecticut in Transition, 1775-1918, Washington : American Historical Asso (...)
  • 6 William MEADE, Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia. Philadelphia : J. B. Lippincott Co (...)

14The press often associated unbelief with French influence. The Philosophes were used for decades as archetypes of infidelity. The threat became more evident when the treaty of Paris of 1763 opened the doors to French influence, which brought more attacks against religion5. The treaty increased the popularity of the French language among intellectuals. At the end of the century, it was probably more than a coincidence if the College of William and Mary, in which the first American chair of French was founded, was also decried as a hot bed of infidelity6.

  • 7 Cf. Margaret H. BARR. Voltaire in America, 1774-1800, Johns Hopkins Studies in Literature and Langu (...)

15French literature flowed in the country. The French residents of Missouri read Voltaire. In the small town of Vicksburg, eighty-two copies of his Dictionnaire philosophique were sold. The patriarch of Ferney received considerable comment, praise or anathema. Large extracts of his works – chosen among the most innocuous – were presented in the press7.

16Deism had two important results. In the first place, it became America’s civil religion. American public folklore, such as the face of the dollar, presidential addresses and rituals, refer to God more than to Protestantism or Christianity. One could also argue that many ideological foundations of the nation, including the secularization of its religious justifications, bear the deistic imprint. Secondly, as an atmosphere of the times, deism contributed its share to the disestablishment of the Churches. A very complex process took place, when the State religions disclosed their inappropriateness to lay the foundations of a post-revolutionary society. Incapable of promoting the necessary consensus, the minister was replaced by the politician.

17 The colonial era did not show any notorious atheistic event ; but this period belonged to the prehistory of American forms of unbelief. The decline of Christianity partly proceeded from the religious groups themelves. The European philosophies and sciences, encouraged by the upper classes of the population, emancipated the institutions of higher learning from theological control.

18A new vision of man assailed the altar. Free thought, dim. defensive, and sporadic in its manifestations, would then try its first steps to create a social and conceptual organization. After the revolution, it would strike a new blow to the clergy on carrying on the battle on the very ground where their authority rested, the ground of Revelation.


19American religions based on revelation had maintained an ambivalent relation with reason. They entrusted it with the mission of disciplining the senses, but confined it to certain fields, out of which it would go astray. Fundamentally weakened by the original sin, reason could be coopted by theology, but was to silently submit before the lights of revelation and the impenetrable mysteries of the Lord.

20Furthermore, the seductive theory that Puritanism fostered reason and science does not explain the contrasting attitudes within the clergy and population. While the rural areas and the lower classes of the population, had no use for science, and flocked round conservative shepherds, men of science could not remain aloof to its underlying philosophy of reason. Physicians engaged in medical research would not be handicapped with theological assumptions. Clergymen writing about earthquakes, like Benjamin Colman in Boston, would insist on rationality. Students would choose among their readings those theologians who emphasized the powers of reason. Such English rationalists as John Tillotson or Samuel Clarke became popular in Harvard. The development of religious liberalism was the price paid for the promotion of science.

21Power slowly transferred from the clergyman to the wealthy merchant. Commerce called for religious toleration ; a philosophy of free will corresponded to individual freedom for enterprise. The ruling class accepted a religion which covered them with social consideration but no longer meddled with business transactions. Radical pastors with latitudinarian and rationalist views could mix with the upper groups. Official documents referred less and less to God and religion.

  • 8 The American Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Boston, 1743-1746.

22For the rising middle classes, reason was the path to wealth and happiness, and brought recognition from the higher circles. Intellectual leadership became an issue that separated them from the clergy. As early as 1721, the famous crusade of The New England Courant against vaccination, made compulsory by the Boston minister Increase Mather, signaled the decline of Puritan domination, the loss of clerical monopoly over the printed matters, and the displacement of mental power from the clergy to the laity. About two decades later, the American Magazine and Historical Chronicle would pay its respect to Voltaire8.


  • 9 Ethan ALLEN, Reason the Only Oracle of Man, 1784.

23Ethan Allen’s book, Reason, the Only Oracle of Man, published in 1784, the first infidel book written in the United States, was perhaps more influential than has generally been admitted9. Assuredly, it was probably too abstract to reach the "patriots" ; besides, most of the copies were destroyed by a fire. Yet, if the work did not reach the masses, it was read by leading theologians. William Bentley, a Jeffersonian Unitarian, lent it in his circle of acquaintances. At least two successive Yale Presidents, Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight took the time to read it.

24Truly, most Deists reached the same conclusions as Allen. The heirs of Greek philosophy and Christian theology, they formulated a discourse which they considered to be universal, valid for everybody and for everywhere. They also acknowledged the necessity of a God. They spoke of God-given natural laws, and emphasized a morality based on obligation. Deists criticized the existent Churches, and rejected the basic set of concepts on which all Christians relied : revelation, sin, inspiration, divine Providence, and in varying degrees, individual predestination.

25But all Deists did not come to these conclusions by the same set of concepts ; Ethan Alien’s arguments were in some way novel. The contrast presented by his philosophy with the thought of his times lied essentially in the place assigned to reason. Striking differences distinguished the author from political radicals like Jefferson or Franklin. The latter deduced their position from first principles. For them, nature spoke of God, and His intentions were transparent to man’s reason. They contented themselves with common sense and self evident truths.

26In practice, the modus vivendi that protestantism had established between revelation and reason had hitherto been accepted by American deists, even after they had rejected revelation.

27For Allen, misinterpretations could exist, as when people indulged into idolatry : yet he insisted on reason and argumentation. Reason was not vitiated by an original sin, as religion pretended. It was a coherent system with its own constraints, that could be argued on the basis of the principle of non contradiction.

  • 10 Ibid., pp. 475-476.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 341.

28A cohabitation between reason and faith could only appear on rationalistic terms. Whoever believed in revelation, still would need reason to distinguish which of the many relevations bore the stamp of divinity. "Reason therefore must be the standard, by which we determine the respective claims of revelation"10. Allen wanted a complete autonomy of reason in all spheres of human thought. One could not believe in Christianity if it were contrary to the evidence of reason : "our minds must be determined in all matters (italics mine) by our reasonings, whether they are conclusive or otherwise ; for mere traditional faith has its inconclusive arguments for its support… 111.

  • 12 Ibid., p. 467.

29All knowledge derived from God, admitted Allen, but it remained natural12. There was no supernatural wisdom. Reason truly was the Oracle of Man.

30Alien’s concept of reason denied the right of religion to a particular sphere, and he can be credited for opening a new path in the American way of thought : the possibility of establishing reason as the supreme criterion of life, as the all encompassing referent.


31Philadelphia, in 1791, witnessed the spectacular appearance of "French free thought". Volney, the philosopher, had just published The Ruins. A thousand two hundred copies of the English edition were shipped to the city. Jefferson himself had undertaken a translation of the work. The book, a best seller, was diffused in every State of the Union, and often reprinted by the free thought press. It was sold for over a century. Meanwhile, the assault against Christianity spread rapidly in the Colleges, and expressed itself very strongly among the middle and upper classes.

32In Philadelphia again, John Fitch, one of the first inventors of the steam-boat, started the Universal Society, a club that met weekly, and gathered some thirty members. The group discussed on a Providence, of life after death, and other similar topics. In 1791, it joined the religious services held by Elihu Palmer, a former minister who denied the divinity of Christ. The following years would mark the extension of the movement in the United States.

33Thomas Paine published in France, in 1794, the first part of his Age of Reason. According to Timothy Dwight, a huge edition was printed in that country, and sent to the United States to be sold at a very low price or even given free. The success was unparalleled. The book was read everywhere, but more particularly in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and later in Indiana. The reaction was swift : every attempt to refute it, and to destroy Paine’s reputation, was used. In Baltimore, Maryland, Elihu Palmer’s new paper, The Temple of Reason caused enough anxiety in the ranks of the clergy to provoke the creation of a periodical, purportedly intended to combat its influence.

34Paine’s Age of Reason, or Palmer’s Temple of Reason were written in religious language, since they were presenting a new theology, and they were easy reading. They told the mechanic that religious theory was sought by reflection from what one saw. Not the Bible, but the creation, and most eminently astronomy, spoke of God. In the process, the workingman was equated to the Creator, since he used the same scientific principles. No longer dependent on the clergyman’s advice, the journeyman in New York, Philadelphia or elsewhere could now go repeating : "My own mind is my own church". Truly, this was the first step to be taken if the working class wanted to gain its intellectual independence.

35In 1794, some New Yorkers founded a society to propagate the principles of the French revolution. They were rejoined by the members of an old democratic Order, Tammany. The new group solicited a lecture from Elihu Palmer, then in New York. Moved perhaps by this blind man who was deprived of any means of subsistence, they appointed him as their lecturer and named themselves the Deistical Society.

36One of its members would become famous, the poet Philip Freneau. Some of his poems, such as "The Puritans", spread anticlerical satire. The Philadelphia Aurora published several of his political works. He also edited in Philadelphia, from 1781 to 1784, the Freeman’s Journal in which he contributed some of his best poems. Freneau’s celebration of "Religion such as nature taught" signalled the start of another important and little studied American trend, the religion of nature.

37Palmer, however, went on suffering ostracism from public authorities. New York, for instance, refused to lease him the hall for a Fourth of July speech in 1797. Yet towards 1799, perhaps under his impulsion, a new group was formed, the Newburgh (N. Y.) Druids. Elsewhere, in Mecklenburg county, South Carolina, well-off people formed a debating society. They also established one of the first circulating libraries that diffused free thought literature.

38When Paine returned to the United States in 1802, the press greeted him with insults, and his friends turned away. Really, Deism was regressing in the middle and upper classes, and in the institutions of higher learning. The tide of scepticism had turned, the Temple of Reason vegetated. The now disestablished Churches were no longer a threat to the groups in power, and their internecine conflicts no longer endangered social consensus. Revivals sparkled a feeling of community belongingness ; they played on deep-rooted emotions that proved stronger than dry reasoning.

39When Robert Owen landed in America in 1824, Deism was lingering, and atheism nearly nonexistent. There was not a single paper to advocate these causes. Three years later, groups had mushroomed in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Cincinnati, and there were "heretics" in such remote places as Woodstock, Vermont. By hundreds, men and women in New York would attend free thought lectures to the great distress of ministers, and the indignation of capitalists. All through the country, bold papers appeared like fire-lines until the Civil War. Owenism had brought a new impetus.

40 In reality, Owen was a Deist ; he attacked only those religions which he considered to be "irrational". His own system had adopted a sectarian pattern : it included millenarianism. The founder of several communities, he let others refer to him as their "social father". He celebrated "namings" – the equivalent of baptism, – delivered funeral orations, and even conducted meetings patterned on church services.

41The militant action was led by associates who had rejected all religion : William Maclure, Frances Wright, Robert L. Jennings, and his son Robert Dale Owen. They attained eminence as the transfer of Owenism from the "backwoods Utopia" to Eastern setting modified their program.

42There was no more place for a millennium in miniature. One had to mingle with local parties and social classes. The articles on agriculture that had regularly appeared in the New Harmony Gazette were replaced by labor politics.

43Those were the times when a decisive battle raged between Churches and Freethinkers to conquer the workingman’s allegiance, and the Owenites were among the leading spirits.

44Robert Dale Owen was perhaps the more business-like of the group, but Frances Wright brought the mystique : happiness, humanity, freedom in all its forms, including freedom of thought. The general tone of the Benthamite philosophy, the pursuit of happiness, was also akin to French romanticism.

45Robert Owen, and his son Robert Dale, impregnated Frances Wright with a practical strategy for the organization of the ideal society : planning, control of property, and so on. From these people, and also from Robert L. Jennings, Frances drew a particular interest on rational education.

46It was not a dreamland that Frances Wright was expecting ; contrarily to the British Utopians, there was place for conflict in her future society. She probably understood better the American democratic system than Tocqueville.

47Freedom to Frances Wright meant political, religious and moral liberty. But such distinctions were purely nominal, liberty was one, it was the possibility to change.

48Through Frances Wright’s impulsion was started the New York Hall of Science, an important meeting place in which workers could hear some most advanced lecturers in the city : Frances Wright, of course, surrounded by Quaker ladies who shared her ideas ; the Deist physician Charles Knowlton, the father of birth control in England and in America, who spoke on "physiology", as did Dr. Baster, a secretary of a Wright-Owen organization. Astronomy, hypnotism were also on the program. Albert Vale, a Deist, lectured on perspective drawing and grammar. Robert L. Jennings held the Sunday school, and spoke on the morals of Moses. Robert Dale Owen also lectured. Really, this was a university for the people where they could hear many theories forbidden in the official schools of learning. A dispensary was even added at a later time, in which people could get free consultation – an ancestor of the "free clinics" of the 1970s.

49 Whether it criticized religion, advocated the new sciences or remained metaphysical, free thought could gather conservatives and reformers alike in its platforms. The bulk of the audience, men in their forties and fifties, were working class people, as were their wives and daughters. Judge Thomas Herttell who fought in the courts for the rights of unbelievers would soon advocate the rights of labor. Under the banner of "infidelity", a new workingmen’s organization was incubating.

50Later historians would consider that free thought discussions would be an unnecessary obstacle in the diffusion of a working class movement. Yet, if one cannot go as far as declare that working-class consciousness would have been impossible without the free thought current, one must acknowledge that, in New York, for instance, the owenites supplied the workers with people, newspapers, relations, and even ideas that would some day raise up the labor movement.

51In the age of Jackson, the proportion of freethinkers among American labor leaders was surely much greater than in the population at large. Ely Moore, first president of the Typographical Association of New York, an influential labor organization, considered himself a skeptic. John Ferral, a dealer in "infidel" literature, was a most prominent leader in Philadelphia, who had launched the Philadelphia Trades Union, presided the National Convention of Workingmen in New York in 1835, and organized the Pittsburgh branch of the National Reform Association in 1844. In Boston, the "atheist" Abner Kneeland was an active promoter of the labor cause. Theophilus Fisk, who like Kneeland abandoned the Universalist pulpit for a career in free thought, was also a labor lecturer. Thomas Skidmore, a machinist by trade, and an agrarian reformed by choice, was inspired by Tom Paine. George Henry Evans, the popular land reformer, became, as many of his agents, a confirmed atheist, and published infidel books. These people had their own periodicals, and these ranked as the most influential in the labor press. Truly, very few of the leading labor papers were then published by Christian workers.

52There is no doubt, however, that if freethinking ideas permeated the workingmen, the emphasis was more and more on the political programs, such as agrarianism and state guardianship, than on the organization of trade unions.

53In this honeymoon between free thought and labor, the former was absorbed by the latter. The growing industrial revolution, the various reform movements, and later the issue of slavery were important questions that necessarily rejected free thought in the background. Yet, freethinkers did not simply vanish. The cult of reason was now falling into a new fad, spiritualism.

54The early disestablishment of the Churches in the American nation had a negative effect on the development of atheism. It did not so much incite people to convert to some religion than it created a situation in which militant atheism appeared to be irrelevant as an instrument of disestablishment.

55At the turn of the eighteenth century. Ethan Allen had invited his fellow citizens to place Reason as the supreme criteria of their lives. At a time of internecine and dogmatic struggles between the Churches, this proposal could have served as a founding stone for a new social consensus, freed from partisan struggle, within American society. After the disestablishment, the battle for consensus would move on other grounds. On the one hand, clerical power was transferred to the new ruling groups. On the other, the successful scapegoating of the atheist and of the French – a movement which culminated in the Alien adn Sedition Act – created new alliances, new coalitions. When Jefferson was elected as President, and the Federalists disappeared, such emotional clusters lost their meaning.

56Furthermore, deists of those early periods did not offer any real choice. Despite their ceaseless references to Reason, they were in effect proposing a new religion, a cult of God through nature. They themselves, therefore, seemed reluctant to place reason as their supreme reference in life.

57Reason could be useful in several ways. It was necessary to promote science. It could help to emancipate the workingman from his minister’s judgment. Unfortunately, freethinkers defined it in terms that were too theological or too metaphysical to serve as a practical instrument for a society in mutation. Pragmatism was a better tool. Frances Wright’s religion of humanity, clearly inspired by Godwin, represented the necessary metamorphosis which free thought had to undertake if it was to remain. But then, to what extent could the Cult of Reason be the supreme criteria in human bonds?

58Non metaphysical reasoning could have been an alternative, but this meant the negation of all Greek heritage, the renunciation to any universal truth. This would in turn fragment the free thought movement ; the practice of rationality would be relegated to the private sphere. Without any common belief or ritual, there could be no community. People would only unite when they felt the need to oppose what they considered encroachments of religion upon American society.

59The game of power was more effective than the cult of reason. American democratic institutions called for pragmatism and negotiations, seduction and constraints, not for rationality. American traditions offered no alternative to religious creeds.


1 Deism during the American and French revolutions has been well documented by Gustav A. KOCH, in his Republican Religion. The American Revolution and the Cult of Reason, New York : Henry Holt and Co., 1933, and properly placed in the general political context in Arthur M. SCHLESINGER Jr.’s. The Age of Jackson, Boston : Little, Brown and Co., 1945. See also Herbert M. MORAIS, Deism in Eighteenth Century America, New York, Columbia University Press, 1934.

2 Josiah QUINCY. The History of Harvard University, Cambridge, John Owen, 1840, vol. 2, p. 139.

3 Cf. Richard HOFSTADTER. The Idea of a Party System. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1970. Carl BRIDENBAUGH. Mitre and Sceptre. Transatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities and Politics, 1684-1775, New York : Oxford University Pres, 1962.

4 C. BLOUNT. Oracles of Reason. London : 1693 ; H. St John. BOLINBROKE, Works, London : 1754 ; Anthony COLLINS. A Discourse of Freethinking Occasioned by the Rise and Growth of a Sect Called Free-Thinkers, London : G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1793 ; William GODWIN, The Genius of Christianity Unveiled, Free thought Essays (1773) ; Herbert of CHERBURY, Religion of the Gentiles with the Causes of their Errors, London, 1705 ; Anthony SHAFTESBURY. Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, etc., 1711. cf. Albert POST. Popular Free Thought in America, 1825-1850, New York : Columbia University Press, 1943.

5 Cf. Richard J. PURCELL, Connecticut in Transition, 1775-1918, Washington : American Historical Association, 1918.

6 William MEADE, Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia. Philadelphia : J. B. Lippincott Co., 1906, v. 1, p. 175.

7 Cf. Margaret H. BARR. Voltaire in America, 1774-1800, Johns Hopkins Studies in Literature and Languages, vol. 39 (1941).

8 The American Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Boston, 1743-1746.

9 Ethan ALLEN, Reason the Only Oracle of Man, 1784.

10 Ibid., pp. 475-476.

11 Ibid., p. 341.

12 Ibid., p. 467.

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