Caroline Winterer: "Were the Americas Part of the Republic of Letters?"
Today we worry about professors being locked in an ivory tower, but 300 years ago a lot of scholars worried about being locked out of the ivory tower. I considered this problem in my forthcoming article, “Where is America in the Republic of Letters?” scheduled for publication in 2012 in Modern Intellectual History, the leading journal in the field of intellectual history after 1650.
The “republic of letters” was the Europe-centered but increasingly global world of learning that thrived in the years roughly 1400-1800. As Europeans sent missionaries, colonizers, and merchants around the globe, they also brought their scholarly ideals with them. But before travel was easy and fast, scholars on the fringes of European empires wondered whether anyone in Europe cared or even knew what they did. In British, French, and Spanish America, scholars gathered new and exotic New World facts on site, all the while despairing about whether anyone in Europe was listening to their ideas and reading their publications.
My article places the Americas within the republic of letters and also reviews four important new books on the topic: Walter Woodward, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676 (2010); Neil Safier, Measuring the New World: Enlightenment Science and South America (2008); Alison Games, The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Expansion, 1560-1660 (2008); and Catherine O’Donnell Kaplan, Men of Letters in the Early Republic: Cultivating Forums of Citizenship (2008).
The article emerged from three years of work on Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters Project project, where I head a team of doctoral students that includes Julia Mansfield, Scott Spillman, and Claire Rydell. We are working on mapping the vast correspondence network of Benjamin Franklin with the help of Franklin’s digitized correspondence, available through the Packard Humanities Institute’s digitized version of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin at Yale University.
Our visualizations of Franklin’s correspondence network shed light on how the Americas both formed part of and were excluded from the Europe-based republic of letters. The Scottish philosopher David Hume nicely summed the problem in a letter he wrote as Franklin prepared to leave England to return to America in 1762. "I am very sorry," Hume wrote to Franklin, "that you intend soon to leave our Hemisphere. America has sent us many good things, Gold, Silver, Sugar, Tobacco, Indigo &c.: But you are the first Philosopher, and indeed the first Great Man of Letters for whom we are beholden to her: it is our own Fault, that we have not kept him." (Hume to Franklin, 10 May 1762.)
The “America effect” is clearly revealed in this map, which compares Franklin’s correspondence network (blue) to Voltaire’s (yellow). Both Franklin and Voltaire were major figures in the republic of letters, but Voltaire could make his international reputation without sending or receiving more than a few letters across the Atlantic. By contrast, provincial Ben Franklin not only sent thousands of letters over the Atlantic but also traveled to Europe and England himself a number of times.