The Enlightenment in America

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How did Enlightenment ideas influence American debates and decisions from 1763 to 1783?

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In America, the years 1763 to 1783 encompassed the growing tension between the colonists and England, the Declaration of Independence, and the Revolutionary War.

Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement which contended that individuals are rational beings, capable of using their senses and faculties to arrive at universal truths. These abilities were self-evident and granted from a higher power, not granted through government. This theory drastically reshaped the way Americans thought about the role of government and projected a specific disdain for governments whose power was intertwined with religion.

Americans believed, as Enlightened beings, that self-government was the best way to preserve these ideals, which they codified as rights. Absolute monarchies were a threat to the preservation of these rights. In instances like the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the disdain Americans had for what they viewed as unfair and unnecessary laws manifested. This tension also came to a breaking point in 1770 with the Boston Massacre.

Colonists seeking independence used individual instances like these against the backdrop of Enlightenment to sway public opinion away from King George III, culminating in the most defiant act of the Declaration of Independence which led to the Revolutionary War. It’s important to make the distinction that without Enlightenment, a revolution still may have occurred, however Enlightenment was necessary for the implementation of a self-governed constitutional republic.

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John Locke was the most important Enlightenment figure in the formation of American thought in the period from 1763 to 1783, a time period which encompasses the build-up to the American Revolution and its aftermath. Locke's Second Treatise of Government gave the colonists a theoretical framework for asserting their freedom by declaring that rulers were only legitimized by the consent of the governed. Once the governed—in this case, the American colonial elite—had withdrawn their consent, they were free to form a separate nation. It is not surprising that words from the Second Treatise, such as the rights to life and liberty, are incorporated directly into the Declaration of Independence.

Enlightenment ideas were also widely disseminated throughout the colonies in Thomas Paine's bestselling pamphlet Common Sense. The key to the popularity of this work was the plain language Paine used, which avoided philosophical jargon and sophisticated vocabulary. Paine spelled out in simple and forceful terms the need for democracy and the importance of rejecting monarchy. These concepts arose from the idea of Natural Rights, the Enlightenment concept that God bestows certain rights of liberty and self-determination on all men. (Notions of "inferior" races and gender, of course, complicate these ideas.)

These concepts became popular and useful because they provided a compelling rationale for the American upper classes to do what they wanted to do, which was to break away from British rule. They also helped influence, especially via Thomas Paine, those on the fence about whether to oppose Britain (not a universally popular idea by any means) to support, or at least not actively oppose, the American Revolution.

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Very broadly, the Enlightenment, also known as the “Age of Reason,” refers to an intellectual, philosophical, and even political movement that spread through Europe during the eighteenth-century. Generally speaking, the Enlightenment period reflected a trend toward applying scientific reasoning beyond science to subjects such as religion, politics, and the arts. While the movement began in Europe, it had extreme influence over America as well. In fact, many historians refer to the time surrounding the American Revolutionary War as the “American Enlightenment” period. After all, it was enlightenment thought and ideals that helped propel the thirteen colonies forward toward declaring their independence.

Of particular influence on Americans was the movement’s emphasis on reconciling science and religion in a way that allowed for religious tolerance and freedom. American revolutionary leaders such as John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson are all considered to have been influenced by and influencers of the American Enlightenment. John Locke, a philosopher and scholar from England, was perhaps the European Enlightenment thinker who had the most influence over American thought during this time. A clear example of the effect of Locke’s writing on 1700s Americans can be seen in the US Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and adopted in 1776. The Declaration states,

We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

While the entire sentence echoes Enlightenment thought, the latter half is nearly a direct quote from Locke.

Like Locke, another European Enlightenment thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, had significant influence on Americans during the period of the Revolutionary War. In particular, Rousseau’s idea of a “social contract” is considered the inspiration for the trend toward popular sovereignty in America. The social contract theory stipulates that a government can only be good if it is freely formed by and for the people it rules. Rousseau argued that citizens and governments engage in a “social contract” by agreeing to exchanging some personal freedoms for societal safety. In part because of this belief, Rousseau was an extreme democrat, believing in direct democracy as the best form of government. While the Founding Fathers of the United States did not go so far as to establish a direct democracy in the United States, they were influenced by Rousseau’s theories, as evidenced by the fact that they created a democratic republic when forming their government.

Ultimately, there are nearly endless examples of the influence of Enlightenment philosophy on Americans during the mid- to late-1700s. After all, it was an Enlightened change in popular opinion and thought that gave the thirteen American colonies a sense of both political and social identity that was distinct from England. Years after the war, John Adams commented,

The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people… This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.

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