Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines

Volume 32, Issue 1, Spring 2021

G. K. Noyer
Pages 83-105

Whatever Happened to Voltaire?

The eighteenth century French Enlightenment writers—Voltaire and Montesquieu especially—were cited in American textbooks as the thinkers who most influenced the founding generation of America until at least the 1970s. They still are, throughout much of the world. And rightly so, as studies of colonial periodicals and pamphlets have largely shown. When and why did they disappear from our high school textbooks? When Voltaire is mentioned at all, it is only as the author of Candide. This essay focuses on Voltaire as a sort of “missing link” in our understanding of American history and government. It includes discussions of his other works, considered far more consequential in his own day, and of his ubiquitous use of critical thinking. The case of Voltaire closely parallels the more recent efforts to erase Thomas Jefferson from U.S. schoolbooks: the author of the first bill for religious freedom and its leading champion in America.