How did the Enlightenment contribute to the development of U.S. democracy or the Revolution?
Several ideas from Enlightenment thinkers have become fundamental aspects of American citizenship and government.
In regard to government, the French legal philosopher Montesquieu invented the idea of a separation of powers into three separate branches of government -- judicial, legislative, and executive -- outlined in his best-known work, Spirit of Laws.
In regard to citizenship, the ideas of John Locke, an eighteenth-century British political philosopher, are especially important. It is from Locke that we get notions, such as the "natural rights of man," which influenced the Declaration of Independence, and our understanding of the right to property. These ideas are described in Locke's lengthy essay "Second Treatise on Government."
What is less often discussed is the Enlightenment idea of the "noble savage," and how this influenced America's conduct toward Native Americans particularly. The "noble savage" makes appearances in Voltaire's Candide and is admired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for the "noble savage" has been unspoiled by (Western) society and lives freely in nature.
Ideas about the "noble savage" allowed European immigrants to the New World to simplify native peoples and their disparate cultures. Both natives and, later, enslaved Africans, became examples of what the European was not: pagan instead of Christian, unclothed instead of clothed, brown or black instead of white.
The idea of the Native American's "nobility" informed Thomas Jefferson's ideas in his essay "Notes on Virginia." Here, he argued that native peoples were "savage," and heathenish, but that they had the potential to be assimilated into whiteness. He did not believe that Africans were assimilable, due to what he deemed their inferior intelligence.
The Enlightenment contributed to the Revolution and to American democracy because it was the source of some of the main ideas held by the Founding Fathers. We can see this from the fact that Enlightenment ideas are prominent in the Declaration of Independence.
Enlightenment political thinkers believed that monarchy did not make sense as a system of government. They believed that it was not rational to think that God had designated some family to rule over a whole country. Instead, they thought, it was more rational to think that people all had to agree to be ruled by their government.
Enlightenment thinkers also thought that monarchy was bad because monarchs ruled for their own good, not the good of the people. These thinkers asked why people would agree to be ruled by a government. They theorized that people agree to be ruled so that the government will protect their basic rights. They want a government that will protect their lives, their freedom, and their property. This, the Enlightenment thinkers said, was the correct role for government.
These ideas can be seen very clearly in the Declaration of Independence. In that document, Jefferson says that government only has just powers if it rules by the consent of the people. He says that the only reason for government is to protect the people’s rights. Among those rights are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We can see that these ideas come directly from the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers as discussed in the previous two paragraphs. Thus, the Enlightenment contributed to American democracy and the Revolution by coming up with the ideas on which our democracy was founded.