How did the Enlightenment lead to the challenges directed against absolutist/mercantilist systems both in Europe and its New World colonies?

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The Enlightenment was a time in European history when people became much more interested than they had once been in trying to understand the world through rational thought and scientific observation.  In other words, this was a time when some people started to demand that the world should make sense to their rational minds.  They were no longer willing to accept ideas because those ideas were propounded by the Church or by ancient authorities such as Aristotle.  Instead, they wanted scientific proof of (or at least logical and rational support for) the rightness of various institutions in their society.

This desire for more rationality in society led to attacks on absolutism and mercantilism.  The thinkers of the Enlightenment could not find any scientific proof that monarchs were superior to other people.  In addition, they could not see any logic to the idea that people from one family were set by God to rule over all the other people in a country.  The thinkers of the Enlightenment wanted proof that mercantilism was economically beneficial.  When they could not find it, they were more likely to adhere to Adam Smith’s well thought-out arguments in favor of free trade.

Thus, the Enlightenment encouraged people on both sides of the Atlantic to rethink the rightness of absolutism and mercantilism.  When they did, they typically rebelled against those ideas because the ideas did not seem logical and could not be supported by scientific proof.

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jameadows | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The Enlightenment and its belief in reason led to changes in the way people thought about science, government, and economics. Influential thinkers such as Adam Smith advocated a system of economics in which the government played a passive role. This was very different from the active role European governments (such as those of Britain and France) played in mercantilism, in which the government tried to maximize exports and minimize imports. Smith thought that the government should not, for example, institute high tariffs to protective domestic industries, which was one of the tenets of mercantilism. He wrote, "A tailor does not try to make his own shoes, nor does a shoemaker try to make his own clothes." In other words, a country should not try to make everything on its own but should import goods from other countries. Enlightenment theory led to the development of capitalism in Europe, in which individuals rather than governments were the prime actors in the economy.

In addition, the New World was affected by the Enlightenment idea of the social contract, in which the government had the duty to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens and could not act as an absolutist form of government. The American Revolution was in part sparked by the idea that the British king was infringing on the rights of Americans through the imposition of the Navigation Acts, which stated that England could control the production and trade of its American colonies. Therefore, Enlightenment ideas led to the eventual end of mercantilism and the development of capitalism in Europe and in the New World.