Very broadly, the Enlightenment, also known as the “Age of Reason,” refers to an intellectual, philosophical, and even political movement that spread through Europe during the eighteenth-century. Generally speaking, the Enlightenment period reflected a trend toward applying scientific reasoning beyond science to subjects such as religion, politics, and the arts. While the movement began in Europe, it had extreme influence over America as well. In fact, many historians refer to the time surrounding the American Revolutionary War as the “American Enlightenment” period. After all, it was enlightenment thought and ideals that helped propel the thirteen colonies forward toward declaring their independence.
Of particular influence on Americans was the movement’s emphasis on reconciling science and religion in a way that allowed for religious tolerance and freedom. American revolutionary leaders such as John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson are all considered to have been influenced by and influencers of the American Enlightenment. John Locke, a philosopher and scholar from England, was perhaps the European Enlightenment thinker who had the most influence over American thought during this time. A clear example of the effect of Locke’s writing on 1700s Americans can be seen in the US Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and adopted in 1776. The Declaration states,
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
While the entire sentence echoes Enlightenment thought, the latter half is nearly a direct quote from Locke.
Like Locke, another European Enlightenment thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, had significant influence on Americans during the period of the Revolutionary War. In particular, Rousseau’s idea of a “social contract” is considered the inspiration for the trend toward popular sovereignty in America. The social contract theory stipulates that a government can only be good if it is freely formed by and for the people it rules. Rousseau argued that citizens and governments engage in a “social contract” by agreeing to exchanging some personal freedoms for societal safety. In part because of this belief, Rousseau was an extreme democrat, believing in direct democracy as the best form of government. While the Founding Fathers of the United States did not go so far as to establish a direct democracy in the United States, they were influenced by Rousseau’s theories, as evidenced by the fact that they created a democratic republic when forming their government.
Ultimately, there are nearly endless examples of the influence of Enlightenment philosophy on Americans during the mid- to late-1700s. After all, it was an Enlightened change in popular opinion and thought that gave the thirteen American colonies a sense of both political and social identity that was distinct from England. Years after the war, John Adams commented,
The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people… This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.