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Dr. David Carrithers, Biography

Although I was raised in the Midwest and attended public schools in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Illinois, I went East for college to Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Once there, I was unexpectedly drawn to the field of European Intellectual History and was fascinated, in particular, by a junior-level seminar on the Enlightenment that greatly influenced my later course of research and writing. Though we read many of the Enlightenment greats, including Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Hume, and Smith, it was Montesquieu’s deep appreciation for the rudiments of social science that most caught my fancy. I became immediately intrigued with Montesquieu’s contributions to political science, sociology, comparative law and cultural anthropology and soon became aware that his chief work, The Spirit of Laws (1748), is filled with stunning pronouncements of various sorts. One encounters, for example, a novel and very influential typology of governmental forms, passionate attacks on the injustice of slavery, riveting sociological and psychological accounts of the origins of religious rituals and of polygamy, brilliant discussions of how government policies affect population growth, emphasis on the role of commerce in producing peace among nations, intriguing statements on how climate, soil, and air quality affect human behavior, and his famous theory that every nation generates its own “general spirit” that is the combined result of the influence of climate, religion, laws, maxims of government, precedents, morals, and customs. Montesquieu was also a profound moral philosopher and a strong advocate of the natural law position, which entails firm belief in relations of justice that antedate positive laws so that the laws that men fashion for themselves should conform to natural law.

Drawn to the history of ideas, I embarked on graduate work at N.Y.U. where I was mentored by Frank Manuel, a widely published student of the French Enlightenment and utopian thought, and Leo Gershoy, a prominent commentator on enlightened despotism and the French Revolution who was nearing the end of his teaching career. During my time in New York, Manuel was composing an intellectual biography of Isaac Newton, and he invited me to serve as his research assistant and amanuensis for the project, an association that lasted for more than a year and enabled me to converse regularly with him and gain familiarity with his impressive work routine and research methodology. Taking up his suggestion, I wrote a doctoral dissertation examining the writings of the seventeenth-century Anglican latitudinarian minister Joseph Glanvill, a sceptic in the tradition of the Greek writer Sextus Empiricus and a popularizer of the post-Galileo “new science” pioneered in England by Hooke, Boyle, and Newton. I might have chosen an aspect of Montesquieu’s thought instead, but Manuel had a rule that none of his graduate students could work on a so-called “major figure” for the doctorate. He perhaps thought we “youngsters” would be blinded, or at least stumble, if we encountered “too much greatness,” and he also believed, as Arthur Lovejoy had written, that lesser figures operating in the intellectual world of a given age provide a better gauge of the dissemination of key ideas within the broader culture. In any case, my chosen topic of Glanvill and the new science reflected my strong interest at the time in the history of science, a fascination that had emerged at Williams College through the reading of Herbert Butterfield’s The Origins of Modern Science.

After serving first as a Graduate Assistant at the Bronx campus of N.Y.U. and then as a Lecturer in History (summer term) at Washington Square College of N.Y.U., I accepted a position in the Department of History at U.T. Chattanooga in the fall of 1970. As a result, however, of a nation-wide revolt against the enrollment of students in mandatory Western Civilization sequences—a restructuring of curriculum that decimated a number of history departments in the United States—I moved to the Department of Political Science after publishing my first work on Montesquieu. Although my teaching thereafter focused on the history of political philosophy, American government, and on American constitutional law and civil liberties, with particular emphasis on the philosophy of law, the free exercise of religion clause of the 1st Amendment, and 8th Amendment punishment issues, I have retained, throughout my career, a strong interest in the French Enlightenment and in Montesquieu in particular. Now that I have retired from teaching, I am embarked on several large-scale Montesquieu projects involving, in collaboration with Mark Waddicor at Exeter University in England and Henry Clark at Dartmouth College, the production of the first English translations of a number of his lesser-known works and a monograph bearing the tentative title Montesquieu and Venice.

Here's a photo with Montesquieu scholars Paul Spurlin (left) and Robert Shackleton (center), circa 1980, taken at a conference in Atlanta, Ga.

photo with Montesquieu scholars Paul Spurlin (left) and Robert Shackleton (center) with myself on the right, circa 1980

In 1976 I travelled to Paris to view the manuscript of the Spirit of Laws. I talked about some manuscript variants in my article on Montesquieu and Venice

Here is the admission card they gave me (I was so young!).

photo with Montesquieu scholars Paul Spurlin (left) and Robert Shackleton (center) with myself on the right, circa 1980

In 1973 I travelled to Southwest France to do research at the Bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux and to visit Montesquieu's chateau at La Brède, near Bordeaux.

Here are some photos from that visit.



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