Starting in the mid-1500s, changes in thinking started to develop in two major areas. This time period would collectively be known as the "Age of Reason". First came the Scientific Revolution, in which thinkers began to challenge old scientific theories that had been accepted for hundreds of years. These challenges in the scientific realm eventually spread to other areas of society, specifically politics and government. In the late 1600s and early 1700s a time period known as the Enlightenment Era began. During the Enlightenment, thinkers like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Baron de Montesquieu began to question the old ways of government and began to develop new ideas on how government should work.
Before the Enlightenment Era, government, especially in Europe, was limited primarily to monarchies. Rulers of this time may have had some restrictions or limits placed on their power but ultimately political freedoms of their subjects were quite limited. The limits on freedom included restrictions on freedom of speech, particularly in regards to criticisms of the government. This meant that during the 1600s there weren't as many revolutions aiming to establish political independence because speaking on such issues could lead to swift punishment.
When we consider colonial revolutions of the 18th centuries that demanded political independence, the American Revolution quickly comes to mind. When we examine the motivations for rebellion by the American colonists against the British Empire, many of the motivations are closely linked to the theories of Enlightenment thinkers. Let's take a look at a few excerpts from the Declaration of Independence that highlight ideas of the Enlightenment:
In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson states the following regarding the rights of citizens:
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
It was originally the Enlightenment thinker John Locke who stated that all people were born with three natural rights, life, liberty, and property (altered slightly by Jefferson to be more encompassing). Locke also stated that it was a responsibility of a government to protect those rights, something that Jefferson believed the British government was failing to do.
Jefferson also includes the following statement in the Declaration of Independence which closely reflects the values of Enlightenment thinkers:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form...
Here Jefferson argues that governments are created by and receive their power from the people they govern. He also states that if a government is destructive and fails to protect the rights of the people, it can be replaced and a new government can be instituted in its place. These statements are closely aligned to the theory of social contract that developed during the Enlightenment.
Through examining excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and comparing them to thoughts and theories developed during the Enlightenment, we can draw a conclusion that it was the Enlightenment Era of the late 17th century and early 18th century that led to a change in the nature of colonial rebellions. The ideas of the Enlightenment gained favor in places like the American colonies and served as a motivation to seek political independence through revolution.