The Enlightenment in America

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How did the Enlightenment contribute to the development of US democracy or the Revolution?

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The birth of the United States was actually the first practical application of the ideas of the Enlightenment in structuring a government from scratch. The founders of the country took many ideas directly from Enlightenment philosophers and built them into the foundation of the new democracy.

For starters, the Founding...

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The birth of the United States was actually the first practical application of the ideas of the Enlightenment in structuring a government from scratch. The founders of the country took many ideas directly from Enlightenment philosophers and built them into the foundation of the new democracy.

For starters, the Founding Fathers broke away from England because, they argued, the Crown was not protecting their natural rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The idea of natural rights and a government's role in protecting them was espoused by John Locke. He argued that a government's power comes from the will of the people, not through the threat of force. The founders of the United States wanted to create a democracy that got its power from the popular will.

The structure of that government also came directly from the Enlightenment. The framers of the Constitution were concerned that too much power concentrated in one part of the government could lead to tyranny and abuses. That is why the government is structured largely along the lines espoused by Montesquieu, the great French philosopher who argued for the separation of powers in government. It is largely because of this Enlightenment philosopher that we have three branches of government (Executive, Judicial, Legislative) with checks and balances over each other.

The United States also guarantees certain rights to the people as espoused by other Enlightenment philosophers. Voltaire argued for freedom of speech and religion. Beccaria wanted governments to protect the rights of those accused of crimes. These are some of the earliest rights that people in the United States have and are enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

In short, many of the founders of the United States were students of the Englightenment. While they may have had many motives for waging a revolution against Great Britain, part of their reasons for it were to establish a democratic nation built on the principles of this era.

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I would say that the Enlightenment had a powerful influence in shaping the evolution of democracy in the United States. Indeed, if we look at the nations of Europe during this time period, the dominant political paradigm was monarchy (and usually Absolutism). However, at the same time that we had these traditional power structures, we also see, in the Enlightenment, challenges against those power structures. If there is a fundamental ethos that defines what we call the Enlightenment, it is this: through Reason, human beings have the capacity to address the social ills of the world and create progress towards the future. This same ideal is present in the spirit of American democracy and, for this reason, represented a radical departure from the political norms of Europe.

American democracy itself was certainly shaped by Enlightenment principles. Probably the most powerful (and most easily perceived) influence was that of the French jurist Montesquieu (indeed, the very idea of the balance and separation of powers so critical to US political structures was itself shaped by Montesquieu's theories concerning English political structures). We might also add the Bill of Rights to this list, which seems to have been informed by Enlightenment era concerns about the abuse of power by government. This influence of Enlightenment thought can be further traced back through the Revolution as well, perhaps most clearly with the Declaration of Independence and its incorporation of the ideas of John Locke.

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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 entitled "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.

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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.

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