The Enlightenment in America

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The influence of the Enlightenment on America and its colonists

Summary:

The Enlightenment significantly influenced America and its colonists by promoting ideas of liberty, equality, and democracy. Thinkers like John Locke inspired the Founding Fathers, shaping the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Enlightenment ideals fostered a spirit of questioning authority and valuing reason, which contributed to the American Revolution and the development of a new political system.

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How did the Enlightenment influence America?

The intellectual and cultural movement known as the Enlightenment influenced America in lots of different ways. One of the key components of Enlightenment thought was the belief that everyone was endowed with natural rights which could not be breached by any government. Among other things, this meant that if governments did try to breach such rights, then the people were entitled to rise up and overthrow them, replacing them with governments that would respect those rights.

Indeed, this is precisely what happened in America under British colonial rule. As set out in the Declaration of Independence, the American colonists believed that their inalienable natural rights—to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—had been violated by the British. Therefore, they believed themselves entitled to change the form of government under which they lived, which meant breaking free from the British once and for all.

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How did the Enlightenment influence the American colonists?

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement, which is usually placed in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Its philosophy affected many areas, such as art, religion, politics, and culture. Its main feature was the fact that religion was no longer seen as the sole explanation of everything. The Enlightenment demanded freedom of thinking, independent of religious doctrine. Rational thought and scientific knowledge suddenly become a lot more important. People slowly began to question the power and authority of faith and religion.

This is why it is not surprising that the colonists in America were influenced by this revolutionary way of thinking, too. As a result of this strive for knowledge, several colleges (which are nowadays called universities) were formed. This reflected the sudden desire to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and the advancement of scientific research. Columbia University, for example, was founded in 1754, and Harvard was founded in 1636.

Another way in which the Enlightenment impacted America was by facilitating the advent of religious tolerance and the freedom of religion. The effect of this can even be seen in the American Constitution, as the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Even the American Revolution itself is an effect of the Enlightenment and its desire for freedom and independence.

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How did the Enlightenment influence the American colonists?

The Framers of the Constitution of the United States were heavily influenced by past and ongoing events in Europe during what is called “the Age of Enlightenment.”  One does not need to search long and hard for evidence of the importance of the intellectual developments taking place in France, Italy and elsewhere on the evolution of political theory in colonial America.  The writings of Bacon, Descartes, Hume, Hobbes, Locke, Kant and others were not just read by those who drafted the Constitution, they were studied and debated.  In writing what would become known as Federalist Paper #9, titled “The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection,” Alexander Hamilton repeatedly cites Montesquieu, the French philosopher and lawyer who dedicated much of his life to contemplations of forms of government that would be more responsive to the peoples than the sovereigns, mainly monarchs, who ruled the continent.  The concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances, the very heart of the American republic, were adapted from the political theories being debated in European salons.  As Hamilton wrote in his essay in challenging the Eurocentric concept of democracy as existing concurrent with limited monarchical powers:

 “If it had been found impracticable to have devised models of a more perfect structure, the enlightened friends to liberty would have been obliged to abandon the cause of that species of government as indefensible. The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election:”

Similarly, James Madison, in Federalist #43 (“The Powers Conferred by the Constitution Further Considered”) cites Montesquieu in arguing for a representative form of government composed of like-minded souls bound by common ideals:

“Governments of dissimilar principles and forms have been found less adapted to a federal coalition of any sort, than those of a kindred nature. “As the confederate republic of Germany,’’ says Montesquieu, “consists of free cities and petty states, subject to different princes, experience shows us that it is more imperfect than that of Holland and Switzerland.” “Greece was undone,’’ he adds, “as soon as the king of Macedon obtained a seat among the Amphictyons.”

The importance of the Enlightenment for the intellectual and cultural evolution of humanity cannot be overstated.  As the power of the monarchies and, as importantly, the Church, was increasingly questioned, and as the importance of thought grounded in scientific discovery became increasingly accepted as legitimate,  the pillars of a stable, enduring democratic form of government were solidified.  That the Founding Fathers of the United States were influenced by these developments in Europe is beyond question.

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How did the Enlightenment influence the American colonists?

The Enlightenment was a major influence on the political ideas of the colonists who pushed for independence from Great Britain.

One of the major ideas of the Enlightenment is that people should be governed by reason, not by tradition.  Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke saw no logical reason why kings should rule rather than having people rule themselves.  They believed that a more logical system was one in which government existed by the consent of the people.  In other words, they believed in democracy.

The leaders of the revolution clearly took many of their political ideas from political thinkers of the Enlightenment.

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How did the Enlightenment influence the American colonists?

The Enlightenment encouraged rational thought over religious thought. As such, the Enlightenment served to create a social and political shift within the colonies from societies based strongly and almost solely in religion to societies that coupled aspects of Enlightenment thoughts with religion. For example, the early creation of town halls and political discussion halls and spaces were results of Enlightenment ideology. When colonists fought during the American Revolution, the leaders of the revolution used Enlightenment ideology to encourage people to enlist in the fight by proclaiming that the revolution would ensure more social, economic, and political liberties for the colonists. Of course, the Enlightenment thought around individual freedoms did not apply to the enslaved people of the colonies, indigenous people, or women considered to be the property of their husbands.

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How did the Enlightenment influence the American colonists?

The Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were strongly influenced by Enlightenment thought. Much of this influence was fostered by the ample time that both men spent in Parisian salons, where intellectuals mingled in the homes of wealthy patrons. There was a great deal of cultural exchange between French and American intellectuals in the late eighteenth century. Thomas Paine's Common Sense circulated through Paris, while the works of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Denis Diderot were read by learned colonists.

One Enlightenment thinker who was a very important source of political thought was the Baron de Montesquieu, a legal philosopher. In The Spirit of the Laws (De L'esprit de Lois), he explained how a government could be separated into three branches, with each branch having the authority to check the power of the other—thereby establishing the American legal standard of "checks and balances." After the United States established the power of judicial review with the Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison (1803), giving American courts the power to strike down laws and any executive or legislative action that contradicts the Constitution, Montesquieu's vision of a society with equally balanced powers had come true.

The expansion of executive power, particularly in recent years, has concerned some because it disrupts the "checks and balances" system, threatening to tilt power too much in favor of the presidency. While Montesquieu's idea still stands, it remains unclear if the nation will sustain its practice.

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How did the Enlightenment influence the American colonists?

The Enlightenment encouraged rational thought in all fields.  The world was supposed to be governed by specific principles and causal relationships.  One Enlightenment thinker was John Locke.  He was a philosopher who claimed that man was born equal to all his fellows and that there  should be no aristocracy or inherited government.  He also claimed that man had three natural rights—life, liberty, and property.  Furthermore, Locke claimed that government operated according to the social contract theory.  Government safeguarded the rights of people and provided a reasonable expectation of safety.  In return, people obeyed the government.  When either side of this equation was lost, the contract was void and should be renegotiated.  Locke contributed to the development of political thought in the colonies by helping create a system in which there was no inherited aristocracy.  His social contract theory of government was also tested in the years prior to the American Revolution, and the colonists found Britain in violation of their natural rights.  The Declaration of Independence even states that the people have a right to overthrow the government when it no longer safeguards natural rights.  

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How did the Enlightenment influence the American colonists?

The intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment encouraged people to think for themselves instead of blindly following authority, be it secular or religious. Each and every one of us in endowed with reason, so the thinkers of the Enlightenment argued, and we must draw upon that stock of reason in navigating our way through life's many hazardous highways and byways.

In relation to political life, reason must be used to construct enduring institutions that will provide us with suitable enlightened governance instead of the tyranny to which an unthinking adherence to custom and tradition often lead.

This was precisely what the American colonists sought to do. Steeped in Enlightenment thinking, they consciously set out to build a system of government on rational principles. Instead of blindly going along with the system that they'd inherited from the British, they embarked upon a deeply ambitious and unprecedented project of state-building that would incorporate enlightened ideals.

Like the devotees of the Enlightenment that they were, the American colonists believed that they had the right to get rid of a system they didn't like and replace it with one that was more in tune with rational principles. This radical notion, of sweeping away an existing system of government and starting a new one from scratch, was a paradigm example of Enlightenment political thinking.

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How did the Enlightenment influence the American colonists?

The Enlightenment was an intellectual and cultural movement that began in Europe in the late seventeenth century. It was also known as the Age of Reason. It emphasized rationality, openness, the questioning of traditional values and ideas, and reasoning and science instead of superstition. Early European Enlightenment figures included Isaac Newton, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes.

One of the great American figures that embodied the Enlightenment was Benjamin Franklin. He was a Freemason and believed in Deism, an Enlightenment idea that God did not intervene directly in the world and that personal morality was more important than religious doctrines.

Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and other important American colonists drew inspiration from Enlightenment ideas to bring about the American Revolution. Enlightenment beliefs about religion and the divine right of kings made it possible for colonists to challenge the authority of the British monarch and declare their independence. Jefferson used Enlightenment ideas found in the writings of John Locke and others when writing the Declaration of Independence. Enlightenment ideas also allowed the nation's founders to implement a moral philosophy of religious tolerance.

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How did the Enlightenment influence the American colonists?

I would agree that the chief way the Enlightenment affected the colonists was through providing a cutting-edge ideology that gave them a framework to justify their strong impetus towards freeing themselves from Great Britain.

Enlightenment natural law theorists like John Locke in his Second Treatise argue that humans are created to be free and equal to each other, and only subordinate themselves to others, such as kings, if they gain by the relationship. Most significantly, Locke asserted that leaders rule only by the consent of the governed. If the rulers violate that consent, say through trying to gain total power, suppress freedom, seize property or in other ways behave as tyrants, it is completely justifiable for the common people to revolt and overthrow them. Locke writes that such tyrannous rulers:

put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience

It is easy to see a connection between Locke's thinking and the complaints the colonists made against George III in documents such as Declaration of Independence. The Enlightenment framework of a "bottoms up" theory of government as arising from the will of the governed, rather than the medieval "top down" theory of kings as legitimized by God made it possible for the Americans to legitimate their revolution as just and good.

For modern readers, this way of thinking seems very commonplace, but it is difficult to overestimate how radical—and feared among elites in England—it was at the time.

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How did the Enlightenment influence the American colonists?

The main way in which the Enlightenment affected the American colonists was by encouraging them to think that monarchy was bad, democracy was good, and that people have natural rights that should be protected.

The Enlightenment was a time when people started to think that rationality was to be prized above other kinds of thought. Before the Enlightenment people tended to base their thinking on what people of the past had thought. They especially relied on what religious leaders told them.  During the Enlightenment, this changed.  People started to demand that what they were told should make rational sense. It should not depend on supernatural forces.

This thinking changed the way people thought about politics.  The institution of monarchy was something that people only accepted because it was traditional and because of religion.  Monarchs were said to have been chosen by God and to rule by divine right.  This belief depends on supernatural forces and cannot be supported logically or rationally.  Therefore, people started to reject the idea of monarchy.

Instead, people started to think about democracy. Thinkers like John Locke thought rationally about why there is government and what government should do. They decided that government only exists by the consent of the people and that it only exists to protect the people’s rights.  These ideas gained a great deal of support in the American colonies and helped to bring about the American Revolution.

The Enlightenment, then, affected the American colonists by encouraging them to think in ways that led them to reject monarchy and to move towards the idea that government should be democratic and should protect the rights of the people.  This kind of thinking led to the American Revolution. 

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How did the Enlightenment influence the American colonists?

The chief effect of the Enlightenment on the colonies was to provide an ideological framework that justified their rebellion and independence from British rule.

The Enlightenment placed rational thought ahead of tradition and superstition. This kind of rational thinking was applied to government, as well as to other aspects of life. Writers, especially the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government, insisted that a monarch ruled by the consent of the governed. This was actually a radical idea at the time. Traditionally, rule was seen as part of a top-down "great chain of being" initiated by God. God decided what was what, including who should rule, and people were expected to accept whatever king they were given. If the king was a tyrant, that was acceptable, as it was God's way of punishing the people for whatever misdeeds they might have done.

Locke said that theory was inaccurate and that a king could forfeit his right to reign by behaving badly and violating moral law. God had infused the world with "natural laws," which were innate, God-given rights that all (at least, all white and male) humans possessed. If a king violated the natural rights of men, it was legitimate for the people to rebel and overthrow him.

We can easily see how this helped in the colonial period at the time of heightened tensions leading to the American Revolution. The Americans claimed natural law gave them the right to depose of King George III—this is why documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, are so insistent on calling him a tyrant and listing his abuses.

Every revolution needs to justify itself if it has any hope of succeeding, and the Enlightenment gave the colonists the justifications they needed.

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How did the Enlightenment influence the American colonists?

The Enlightenment gave the colonies the philosophical underpinnings to oppose British rule and establish their own country. For example, John Locke's Second Treatise on Government makes many of the same claims as the colonists later used in declaring their independence.

Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke based human rights on the idea of natural law, which argues that humans have a God-given right to liberty and the pursuit of self interest or happiness. He contended that people give up some of these rights to enter into civil society and gain the protection of the government. However, Locke also stated that humans have an innate right to rebel against and throw off a government that becomes too tyrannous, violating the rights of the populace.

Men such as Thomas Jefferson used this line of thought to justify breaking away from the British to set up an independent nation. For example, The Declaration of Independence borrowed from Enlightenment thinking when it states that governments derive their "just powers from the consent of the governed" and offers a list of grievances which the writers argued showed King George III's "absolute tyranny" over the colonies. Without an Enlightenment sense that they had "natural rights," including a right to reject an unacceptable government, it might have been much harder to justify rebellion against Great Britain.

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