How did Enlightenment thinkers influence the Declaration of Independence?  

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Declaration of Independence incorporates many Enlightenment ideas and the numerous contradictions they generated. The most obvious of these would be the notion of human rights, that each and every human being has been endowed with certain inalienable rights, simply by virtue of the fact that they are human. And that furthermore, those rights must be protected by a system of government constructed for just such a purpose:

[A]ll men are created equal.

These are arguably the most famous—and the most controversial—words in the entire document. Even at the time they were written, there were those among the Founding Fathers who felt distinctly uncomfortable with the huge chasm between the promise of equal rights and their realization in American society. If all men were created equally, then what about the slaves? Weren't they men too? Weren't they endowed by God with inalienable rights? And then there was the important question of what rights, if any, women were supposed to have.

The fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Declaration of Independence is a contradiction at the heart of the Enlightenment itself. Despite its promotion of universal values, this great intellectual movement was unable to achieve true universality on account of the unacknowledged assumptions of race, class, and gender of its leading thinkers, assumptions that are readily on display in the Declaration of Independence.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The men that signed the Declaration of Independence, as well as the man who wrote it, were very much influenced by Enlightenment political theory.  The Declaration of Independence stated that if a government does not protect the freedoms of its citizens, the citizens have the right to overthrow said government.  This is the idea of a social contract that grew out of Enlightenment thought.  Jean Jacques Rousseau spoke of legitimate governments that citizens should submit to.  These are governments that are not tyrannical in nature.  

John Locke speaks of natural rights that the government cannot deny its subjects.  These rights, as Locke defines them, are life, liberty, and property.  Thomas Jefferson, in writing the Declaration of Independence, quoted John Locke nearly verbatim in discussing the unalienable rights of man (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.)  Enlightenment ideals of equality and popular sovereignty are also prevalent in the Declaration of Independence. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial