American Revolution

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How did Enlightenment ideas lead to U.S. independence and founding?

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Ideas of the Enlightenment led to the independence and founding of the United States in several ways, such by stressing the importance of the rights to life, liberty, and property and the consent of the governed.

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The Enlightenment, a cultural and scientific movement that started in Europe, stressed the idea of reason and rationality over superstition and religion. Enlightenment thinkers dedicated themselves to advancing ideas related to science and government.

Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, developed the idea of the social contract—that people exchanged their liberties for the government's protection. John Locke, another English philosopher, further developed the idea of the social contract and stated that people had a right to the protection of life, liberty, and property from their government. If the government did not protect these rights, the people had the right to overthrow the government.

These ideas inspired the American Revolution. When writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson stated that we have the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," echoing Locke's ideas about inalienable rights—or rights that cannot be removed, because humans are born with them. The founding of our country was based on Enlightenment ideas such as the division of the government into three branches, an idea proposed by the Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu. The idea that we had the rights to life, liberty, and happiness was also enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, particularly in the idea that the governed have certain rights, such as freedom of speech, that cannot be removed.

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The Enlightenment represented a profound shift in thinking from the reliance on authority and tradition to reliance on reason. Many historians locate this as beginning with Descartes, who radically questioned how he knew what he knew and what it meant to have being. He discarded all his prior notions and, after doing so, decided he had being not because God created him, but because he thought. He formulated this as, "I think, therefore I am." This was a radical shift in Western thought because it made human reason, not God, the foundation stone of knowledge. God derived from reason, not reason from God.

This had a deep impact on political philosophy. Political thinkers, notably John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government, argued that a king derives his power not from God (the concept of Divine Rights of Kings) but from the consent of the governed. The concept of consent of the governed became a powerful tool in providing the colonists with an ideological framework for declaring independence and starting a new nation. They argued very forcefully that George III was a tyrant who imposed taxation without representation, and that they therefore had the right to form their own independent government.

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I think that another way in which the Enlightenment played a critical role in the independence and founding of America can be seen in Colonial acts of protest against the British.  Many of the actions that the Colonists took against the British were rooted in the idea of reciprocity, reasonability, and empowerment.  These are Enlightenment ideas.  For example, the Colonists took to resentment in how the British failed to effectively acknowledge their support during the French and Indian War.  The Enlightenment idea of reasonability can be seen in such a cultural attitude.  Enlightenment principles affirmed that individuals should not subjugate themselves to or for anyone and mutual respect equated with scientific principles of equality.  For the Colonists, to experience continued disrespect after making a sizable commitment was not reasonable and thus helped to foster a sense of rebellion from the British.  Further evidence of this can be seen in the protests against the Stamp Act.  The protests against the Stamp Act resulted in petitions being drafted, grievances being aired, and a sense of collective strength emerging in the demand for rights and respect.  These ideas mirror the questioning of orthodoxy that existed at the heart of the Enlightenment, as well as "the freedom to use one's intelligence."  For the Colonists, it was not intelligent to submit to the Stamp Act and other British- imposed initiatives that took away from their freedom.  The Colonists perceived the British acts as a means to take away personal liberties and a sense of autonomy that they did not feel was subject to British rule.  These ideas are Enlightenment ideals in their very essence.  When James Otis suggests that "A man's home is his castle" and when Patrick Henry suggests "Give me liberty or give me death," one is reminded of how the Enlightenment ideas of freedom, self- determination, and self- interest existed at the core of the American desire for freedom and independence from England.  These ideas become a part of the founding of the nation in both the act of declaring and maintaining independence from the parent nation.

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The ideas of the Enlightenment helped lead to the American Revolution and American independence because they formed the philosophical basis for America’s claim that it should have more autonomy.

One of the major ideas of the Enlightenment was that ideas should not be given credence simply because they were traditional. People should not go on believing something just because that was how things had always been. Another major idea of the Enlightenment was that governments should exist by the consent of the people and that those governments’ goal should be to protect the rights of the people.

Both of these ideas helped bring about American independence. The Enlightenment encouraged Americans to reject the traditional ideas of monarchy. It also encouraged them to demand the ability to consent to being ruled by their government. Finally, it gave them the idea that they had the right to overthrow their government if it was not acting to protect their rights.

Thus, the ideas of the Enlightenment helped give Americans the idea that they should become independent.

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