The Enlightenment was instrumental in the outbreak of the French Revolution because of its emphasis on the rights of the individual and the rejection of the theory of Divine Right of Kings. It is noteworthy that most of the thinkers of the Enlightenment were French, and wrote with the intention of bringing Enlightened thought to France. Among them:
- The Baron de Montesquieu, who stated in his Spirit of the Laws, that the power of monarchs came from the people themselves, not from God. Montesquieu argued that the Parlements of France should act to limit the power of the King.
- Voltaire, who wrote of the British governmental system:
The English are the only people on earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings by resisting them, and who by a series of struggles, have at last established that wise Government, where the Prince is all powerful to do good and at the same time is restrained from committing evil.
- Jean Jacques Rousseau, author of The Social Contract, advocated rule by the "general will and popular sovereignty."
These ideas expressed themselves in the French Revolution as the people reacted to the perceived abuses of the French Monarchy. Enlightenment ideas are best expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man:
Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.
The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.
Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.
The roots of the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, began during the Late Renaissance, when the philosophical and cultural standards of the Middle Ages had finally been overthrown. By the 1600's, the Scientific Revolution had begun, when it was discovered that the physical world could be not only comprehended, but measured and predicted. The successes of the New Science parallelled the New Philosophy; humans, through reason, could understand the Universe. This new way of thinking developed in France and England, and the new philosophy was applied to systems of government and economics as well as science. Many of the philosophers (Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu) were French; the discussions culminated in the publication in France of an Encyclopedia during the 1700's. This series of books undoubtedly influenced key Americans (Washington, Franklin, Paine, Jefferson) and gave them the philosophical arguments of what was a "proper government", and culminated in the American Revolution.
Inspired by the American example, the French began to ask the same questions of proper government, rejected the concept of monarchy as the Americans had, and began the French Revolution.