The ideals of the Enlightenment had a major impact on the colonists and the founding fathers of the United States used many of these ideas in their new government. Major elements of our democracy, such as “separation of powers” and “checks and balances” came from Enlightenment writers like Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. Even Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” from the Declaration of Independence was adapted from John Locke’s phrase “Life, Liberty, and Property.”
The Enlightenment was a major influence on the political ideas of the colonists who pushed for independence from Great Britain.
One of the major ideas of the Enlightenment is that people should be governed by reason, not by tradition. Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke saw no logical reason why kings should rule rather than having people rule themselves. They believed that a more logical system was one in which government existed by the consent of the people. In other words, they believed in democracy.
The leaders of the revolution clearly took many of their political ideas from political thinkers of the Enlightenment.
The Framers of the Constitution of the United States were heavily influenced by past and ongoing events in Europe during what is called “the Age of Enlightenment.” One does not need to search long and hard for evidence of the importance of the intellectual developments taking place in France, Italy and elsewhere on the evolution of political theory in colonial America. The writings of Bacon, Descartes, Hume, Hobbes, Locke, Kant and others were not just read by those who drafted the Constitution, they were studied and debated. In writing what would become known as Federalist Paper #9, titled “The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection,” Alexander Hamilton repeatedly cites Montesquieu, the French philosopher and lawyer who dedicated much of his life to contemplations of forms of government that would be more responsive to the peoples than the sovereigns, mainly monarchs, who ruled the continent. The concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances, the very heart of the American republic, were adapted from the political theories being debated in European salons. As Hamilton wrote in his essay in challenging the Eurocentric concept of democracy as existing concurrent with limited monarchical powers:
“If it had been found impracticable to have devised models of a more perfect structure, the enlightened friends to liberty would have been obliged to abandon the cause of that species of government as indefensible. The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election:”
Similarly, James Madison, in Federalist #43 (“The Powers Conferred by the Constitution Further Considered”) cites Montesquieu in arguing for a representative form of government composed of like-minded souls bound by common ideals:
“Governments of dissimilar principles and forms have been found less adapted to a federal coalition of any sort, than those of a kindred nature. “As the confederate republic of Germany,’’ says Montesquieu, “consists of free cities and petty states, subject to different princes, experience shows us that it is more imperfect than that of Holland and Switzerland.” “Greece was undone,’’ he adds, “as soon as the king of Macedon obtained a seat among the Amphictyons.”
The importance of the Enlightenment for the intellectual and cultural evolution of humanity cannot be overstated. As the power of the monarchies and, as importantly, the Church, was increasingly questioned, and as the importance of thought grounded in scientific discovery became increasingly accepted as legitimate, the pillars of a stable, enduring democratic form of government were solidified. That the Founding Fathers of the United States were influenced by these developments in Europe is beyond question.
North American colonists in the 18th century were overwhelmingly of English and Western European descent and borrowed their political philosophy from their relatives across the Atlantic. In Western Europe, the Enlightenment movement sought to disempower absolute monarchies and religious authority by emphasizing that the highest ideals and formative ideas of an ideal society include rationalism, personal liberty, individualism, constitutional government, and tolerance.
The colonists, originally subjects of the English monarchy, rebelled against England in order to gain more personal liberty and solidify their rights as free people. The post-revolution American government was formed as a complex web of counteracting branches (executive, judicial, and legislative), underpinned by a regulative constitution, that helped ensure that government would not become too powerful or unaccountable to oversight. This way, the rights of the individual could be protected from oppressive government.