The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments

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The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments

By Gertrude Himmelfarb
Knopf, 2004
304 pp. $25.00

One of the most important and least remarked truths of modern history is that the British enlightenment came before the French, both temporally and intellectually. Himmelfarb's new book does full justice to this fact and goes on to place the American enlightenment in the context of its predecessors. I am not quite persuaded that Himmelfarb's account, constantly drifting off from the political activities of the Founders to the ferment among American Wesleyans and Calvinists, fully supports her claim that the Federalist Papers were to the American enlightenment what the Encyclopedie was to the French. Nevertheless, readers wishing a quick introduction to the philosophical and sociological roots of the political principles of the Revolutionary and Federalist periods will not regret time spent with this clearly written and enlightening book. Himmelfarb's exploration of the ideological connections between Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, as well as her arguments for the continuities between the younger and older versions of these key figures, is an extraordinary and convincing tour de force.

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