The Enlightenment in America

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How did the Enlightenment affect the colonists?

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The intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment encouraged people to think for themselves instead of blindly following authority, be it secular or religious. Each and every one of us in endowed with reason, so the thinkers of the Enlightenment argued, and we must draw upon that stock of reason in...

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The intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment encouraged people to think for themselves instead of blindly following authority, be it secular or religious. Each and every one of us in endowed with reason, so the thinkers of the Enlightenment argued, and we must draw upon that stock of reason in navigating our way through life's many hazardous highways and byways.

In relation to political life, reason must be used to construct enduring institutions that will provide us with suitable enlightened governance instead of the tyranny to which an unthinking adherence to custom and tradition often lead.

This was precisely what the American colonists sought to do. Steeped in Enlightenment thinking, they consciously set out to build a system of government on rational principles. Instead of blindly going along with the system that they'd inherited from the British, they embarked upon a deeply ambitious and unprecedented project of state-building that would incorporate enlightened ideals.

Like the devotees of the Enlightenment that they were, the American colonists believed that they had the right to get rid of a system they didn't like and replace it with one that was more in tune with rational principles. This radical notion, of sweeping away an existing system of government and starting a new one from scratch, was a paradigm example of Enlightenment political thinking.

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The Enlightenment was an intellectual and cultural movement that began in Europe in the late seventeenth century. It was also known as the Age of Reason. It emphasized rationality, openness, the questioning of traditional values and ideas, and reasoning and science instead of superstition. Early European Enlightenment figures included Isaac Newton, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes.

One of the great American figures that embodied the Enlightenment was Benjamin Franklin. He was a Freemason and believed in Deism, an Enlightenment idea that God did not intervene directly in the world and that personal morality was more important than religious doctrines.

Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and other important American colonists drew inspiration from Enlightenment ideas to bring about the American Revolution. Enlightenment beliefs about religion and the divine right of kings made it possible for colonists to challenge the authority of the British monarch and declare their independence. Jefferson used Enlightenment ideas found in the writings of John Locke and others when writing the Declaration of Independence. Enlightenment ideas also allowed the nation's founders to implement a moral philosophy of religious tolerance.

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I would agree that the chief way the Enlightenment affected the colonists was through providing a cutting-edge ideology that gave them a framework to justify their strong impetus towards freeing themselves from Great Britain.

Enlightenment natural law theorists like John Locke in his Second Treatise argue that humans are created to be free and equal to each other, and only subordinate themselves to others, such as kings, if they gain by the relationship. Most significantly, Locke asserted that leaders rule only by the consent of the governed. If the rulers violate that consent, say through trying to gain total power, suppress freedom, seize property or in other ways behave as tyrants, it is completely justifiable for the common people to revolt and overthrow them. Locke writes that such tyrannous rulers:

put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience

It is easy to see a connection between Locke's thinking and the complaints the colonists made against George III in documents such as Declaration of Independence. The Enlightenment framework of a "bottoms up" theory of government as arising from the will of the governed, rather than the medieval "top down" theory of kings as legitimized by God made it possible for the Americans to legitimate their revolution as just and good.

For modern readers, this way of thinking seems very commonplace, but it is difficult to overestimate how radical—and feared among elites in England—it was at the time.

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The main way in which the Enlightenment affected the American colonists was by encouraging them to think that monarchy was bad, democracy was good, and that people have natural rights that should be protected.

The Enlightenment was a time when people started to think that rationality was to be prized above other kinds of thought. Before the Enlightenment people tended to base their thinking on what people of the past had thought. They especially relied on what religious leaders told them.  During the Enlightenment, this changed.  People started to demand that what they were told should make rational sense. It should not depend on supernatural forces.

This thinking changed the way people thought about politics.  The institution of monarchy was something that people only accepted because it was traditional and because of religion.  Monarchs were said to have been chosen by God and to rule by divine right.  This belief depends on supernatural forces and cannot be supported logically or rationally.  Therefore, people started to reject the idea of monarchy.

Instead, people started to think about democracy. Thinkers like John Locke thought rationally about why there is government and what government should do. They decided that government only exists by the consent of the people and that it only exists to protect the people’s rights.  These ideas gained a great deal of support in the American colonies and helped to bring about the American Revolution.

The Enlightenment, then, affected the American colonists by encouraging them to think in ways that led them to reject monarchy and to move towards the idea that government should be democratic and should protect the rights of the people.  This kind of thinking led to the American Revolution. 

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