The Enlightenment in America

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Influences of Enlightenment philosophy on American democracy

Summary:

Enlightenment philosophy significantly influenced American democracy. Thinkers like John Locke inspired the concepts of natural rights and government by consent, which are foundational to the Declaration of Independence. Montesquieu's ideas on the separation of powers shaped the structure of the U.S. Constitution, ensuring a balanced government. These Enlightenment principles promoted reason, individualism, and a commitment to liberty and justice in American political thought.

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Which philosophers influenced American democracy during the Enlightenment?

Both British and French Enlightenment-era philosophers strongly influenced ideas about democracy that were implemented in the foundational documents of the United States.

In England, John Locke’s ideas played a paramount role in shaping the Declaration of Independence through their influence on Thomas Jefferson. Writing in the seventeenth century, Locke examined the fundamental bases of government, such as right to rule. Locke strongly believed in human rational thought, which he thought could effectively challenge tyranny and abuse of power. His most well-known work, in which he lays out these ideas, is the Second Treatise of Government (1689). Locke systematically laid out what constitutes legitimate bases for government. Locke argued that the consent of the governed was a crucial component in any ruler’s authority. The concept that life, liberty, and property were people’s rights—as opposed to something bestowed by a monarch—is usually attributed to Locke’s work. Furthermore, the government was responsible for protecting these rights, and if it failed, rebellion was justified.

The Baron de Montesquieu, an eighteenth-century French philosopher, was also influential. He believed that different branches of government should be occupied with different responsibilities and thus potentially balance each other. Thus, he is credited with inspiring the importance of the separation of powers.

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What Enlightenment areas influenced American Democracy?

The principles of American democracy are founded to a large degree upon the tradition of English liberty ultimately going back to the Magna Carta. English democracy evolved over a period of hundreds of years, and we can look at the English Civil War of the 1600's and the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 as great forward bounds in this evolution. In declaring their independence from Britain in 1776, Americans were in fact asserting what they believed were their rights as Englishmen, which they saw as having been violated by George III and his administration. And in doing so they were extending those rights, drawing on the ideas of philosophers such as John Locke, whose writings are in some sense a codification of the principles of the English Constitution.

What is the connection between these facts and the overall European Enlightenment of the 1700's ? First, it's obvious that Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire were influenced and inspired by the (relative) political freedom they knew existed in Britain in comparison with the mostly absolutist forms of government in the countries of Continental Europe. Second, the Enlightenment was a secular movement in which the adherence to religion, and its corollary notion that kings ruled by divine right, were rejected. American democracy is based on the separation of church and state. This, of course, is a change from the English tradition in which the Church of England is linked to the government.

The United States was thus created from a chain of influences beginning with the English Constitution and followed by philosphers such as Locke, Hume, Voltaire and Rousseau, who extended the general principles of liberty, secularism, and the natural and equal rights of human beings. This may be a simplified explanation of how the Enlightenment inspired the American Revolution and ultimately the U.S. Constitution, but it can serve as the basis for further research you might wish to undertake on the subject.

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