How does the Bill of Rights reflect a key Enlightenment idea?
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One of the major themes of the Enlightenment was that human reason could be used to fight against such things as superstition (and religious domination) and (importantly) tyranny. The Bill of Rights reflects these ideas in important ways.
- To combat the power of churches, the freedom of religion clauses of the First Amendment were added.
- Many of the rest of the amendments are meant to either help allow reason to prevail and/or to prevent tyranny. For example
- The First Amendment stuff on freedom of speech, press, etc is meant to give people a chance to use their reason and to convince others of what is right.
- The 4th Amendment and others are meant to ensure that the government can't act in tyrannical ways.
The Bill of Rights reflects a key Enlightenment idea because it limits what government can do and it does so in order to protect the rights of the people.
According to Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, the purpose of government was to protect the basic human rights of its people. The Bill of Rights is meant to ensure that government cannot go against this idea and infringe on those rights. It spells out the rights that are fundamental to human society and it prohibits the government from infringing on them. In this way, it protects human rights, just as Enlightenment thinkers want the government to do.
The Bill of Rights was not powers government grants individuals as is commonly thought; it is individual rights restricting the power of government, which by definition, tends to expand its powers beyond the borders of its original intent. The fact that the Founders specifically enumerated rights expresses the Enlightenment concept of defining the relationship between individual and state. Although they are enumerated, the list is not inclusive; the intent of Amendments 9 & 10 in particular is that all rights, whether defined or not, are allowed freedom of expression in the United States. This expresses the Enlightenment concept that an individual has an an infinite number of rights, and that government should allow free expression of those rights.
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