This chapter begins by outlining the ways in which ‘Enlightenment’ has been constructed, by contemporaries, philosophers, and historians. Historical study of Enlightenment only began in earnest in the second half of the twentieth century, but developed rapidly from the 1970s, expanding its scope geographically, socially, and intellectually. Since 1989 there has been a reaction against the multiplication of ‘Enlightenments’, as historians have become anxious to defend the Enlightenment’s ‘modernity’. This chapter, however, resists the equation of Enlightenment with modernity, arguing that historical reconstruction of Europe’s Enlightenment should be grounded in its eighteenth-century contexts. Successive sections are devoted to re-assessing its contributions to the critique of religion and the defence of toleration, to the understanding of human nature, society and political economy, and to the growth of a ‘public sphere’ and the formation of ‘public opinion’. The conclusion is that there was no high road from Enlightenment to Revolution.
During the American Revolution, print emerged as a medium to describe conversion experiences, to exhort to virtue, to plead for votes, to amuse, and to scandalize. Printed texts enabled ideas to float from one mind to another. Imprints and newspapers both experienced dramatic growth, in part due to advances in papermaking, typesetting, and bookbinding. The heart of early Republican print culture, though, was not books, but ephemera. Much of the power of print depended on Americans' ability to read. The new United States was a highly literate and schooled society. The first federal copyright law, passed in 1790, spurred the transition from printers to publishers, while the Sedition Act resulted in the significant expansion of the Republican press. Aside from newspapers, almanacs and magazines flourished in the decades after the Revolution.