The American Enlightenment: Treasures from the Stanford University Libraries

Exhibition highlights ideas, discoveries, and debates in eighteenth-century America

American EnlightenmentThe Enlightenment, the age of intellectual inquiry and discovery that stretched from roughly 1680 to 1820, drew fundamentally from the European colonization of the Americas. This exhibition tells the story of how New World discoveries and ideas contributed to the Enlightenment and illustrates the transatlantic debates over issues of government, science, religion, and individual rights that shaped it. On display are books that were owned, written, dissected, or annotated by notable mid-eighteenth-century British Americans and one African American, and books about peculiarly North American topics.

The American Enlightenment: Treasures from the Stanford University Libraries opens Monday, February 7, in the Peterson Gallery and Munger Rotunda on the second floor of the Bing Wing of Green Library, Stanford University. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

Highlights of the rare books featured in the exhibition include: the only book known to have been signed both by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (a copy of John Milton's Paradise Lost); Nicholas Biddle's account of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's History of the Expedition . . . to the Sources of the Missouri (1814) which contains the celebrated map drawn by Clark that provided the first accurate depiction of the sources of the Columbia and Missouri rivers; a vermin-chewed copy of a republican tract read by the major American revolutionary Henry Laurens while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London on suspicion of high treason; an anthology of British play extracts that belonged to the Boston slave and poet Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784), the first African-American poet to be published; an unpublished letter penned by Benjamin Franklin to Scottish immigrant physician John Lining on their mutual interest in how the human body makes heat; a well-worn copy of Webster's American Spelling Book , which helped to standardize spellings of distinctly New World, native place names, such as Kentucky and Catawba; one of the most magnificent color books about New World animals and plants, Mark Catesby's The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands; and two copies of Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776), from the original year of publication. One of these two pamphlets was published in Philadelphia, the other in London, where it was partially censored by the Crown and so is missing critical chunks that defame the king, "the royal brute of Britain."

Notes Bryan Wolf, the Jeanette and William Hayden Jones Professor in American Art and Culture at Stanford University: "We learn from this extraordinary exhibition the glory of Enlightenment thinking in America: its range, ambition, and its longevity. No one who views it can doubt the fundamental role played by American writers in what was truly a trans-Atlantic Enlightenment."

Catalogue and online exhibition

Curated by Stanford University Professor of History Caroline Winterer, the exhibition is timed to coincide with her winter quarter course, "The American Enlightenment." A website, as well as a print catalogue jointly funded by the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts (SiCa) and the Stanford University Libraries, will extend the reach of the physical exhibition.

The print catalogue will be available for purchase beginning mid-February, 2011, in the Special Collections reading room on the second floor of the Green Library Bing Wing (10-5 M-F). It can also be purchased via mail by following the instructions on the Stanford Libraries' Department of Special Collections publications web page, at

The American Enlightenment: Treasures from the Stanford University Libraries will be on display from February 7 through July 15, 2011 (extended due to popular demand). Exhibit cases are illuminated Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m. The gallery is accessible whenever Green Library is open and hours vary with the academic schedule. For Library hours, call 650-723-0931.

NOTE: first-time visitors must register at the south entrance portal to Green Library's East Wing to gain access to the exhibition in the Bing (west) Wing. For a map of campus and transportation information, go to