The intellectual movement that followed the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century is known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is usually understood as a primarily French movement in ideas, but there also was a Scottish and a German Enlightenment. The major ideas of the Enlightenment embraced freedom, optimism, reason, independence, tolerance, secularization, and change. The political ideas that Enlightenment theorists propagated were those of liberty, democracy, and the sovereignty of the people.
The Age of Enlightenment or Age of Reason brought to educated Europeans and their American counterparts a new worldview based upon science, reason, and Deism. Deists subscribed to a view of God as something like a watchmaker, who created the world and set it in motion, then let it run on its own laws. The thinkers of the Enlightenment, who were known as philosophes, applied the laws of nature and science to society.
The formative influences of the Enlightenment derived from the English may be found in the work of scientists Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon and philosopher John Locke. Newton and his disciples taught that the universe was a self-regulating system in which there was nothing but matter. The laws of this self-regulating universe could be discovered, and humans could exploit these to their own advantage.
Lockean liberalism stressed individual rights, the social contract, and limited government; the role of government was to protect individual rights, and property was power. Democracy, however, was not a part of the Lockean system. Bacon, the father of the scientific method, stressed empiricism.
The seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke, a forerunner of the Enlightenment and the American experiment in government, advanced a political philosophy that stressed individual rights, the social contract, and limited state authority. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) Jefferson claimed to have been most influenced by the works of these three men. Scholars of the American Enlightenment most commonly refer to it as moderate in the sense that the Americans did not subscribe to the more radical views of French Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and even Voltaire.
Rousseau was too democratic, while Voltaire was too antireligious for the American temperament. Although the French Enlightenment thinkers did not constitute the primary influence on the American colonists, they nevertheless did have an impact. From Charles de Montesquieu, the Americans inherited the political ideas of checks and balances and the separation of powers.
The American Constitution is based on these premises. The religion of Voltaire, or Deism, a natural religion based on understanding God through reason, became the religion of Jefferson and, with some modifications, Benjamin Franklin as well. The American Enlightenment is usually dated as occurring between 1765 and 1815.
Most scholars are in agreement that the American patriots were primarily sons of the Scottish rather than the French Enlightenment. The most important of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers were David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and Francis Hutcheson. Hume and Smith provided Americans with the view that the modern laissez-faire market, with its encouragement of individualistic economic practices, produced happiness for the greatest number.
At the same time, the Scottish thinkers bequeathed to the Americans the ideas that individuals have rights because they are God-given. Civic morality, which was an important concept for the Americans, came from the Scottish school. Americans were also deeply influenced by the commonsense philosophy of the Scot Thomas Reid, which stated that all men were equal not because they were physically the same but because they were endowed by God with a common moral sense.
Although they read his works, Americans were not entirely in agreement with Hume because of his skepticism. However, they were great admirers of Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson was a moral philosopher at the University of Glasgow from 1730 until his death in 1746.
In his course of moral philosophy, he included a study of human nature and inquired into what constituted the greatest good and happiness of humanity, together with an account of natural law and human behavior as it was before governments existed. His major work, A System of Moral Philosophy (1755), dealt with contracts and rights and provided advice on how to conduct oneself as a citizen. Hutcheson argued that moral distinctions are intuitive, rather than arrived at by reason.
He stressed the doctrine of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, anticipating utilitarianism. Hutcheson also believed in religious freedom, economic liberty, and the reform of representative institutions. In addition to the Scots and the French, the Americans drew upon the ideas of the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, who stressed the reform of criminal law.
In 1764, Beccaria published his major treatise, On Crimes and Punishments. In this work, he stressed common Enlightenment themes such as individual rights and the greatest happiness for the greatest number and applied them to the judicial system. He argued that no one could be proclaimed a criminal until he was found guilty, and he wrote against the death penalty as a punishment.
In addition to Beccaria, the Dutch natural rights theorist Hugo Grotiu, whose views on the laws of nature and principles of civil government also influenced Jefferson. Grotius stressed man's natural rationality and sociability, two key concepts of the Enlightenment. The works of the Swiss jurist and professor of natural and civil law J.
J.Burlamaqui were also read by the Americans. He wrote The Principles of Natural Law (1747) and The Principles of Political Law (1751), in which he attempted to prove the existence of a natural law by tracing its origins to God, human reason, and moral character.
Americans relied a great deal on classical authors when forming their political system. The return to classical political theory and especially republican ideology constitutes another trait of the Enlightenment. Homer, Cato, Pliny, Seneca, Livy, and Justinian were all cited in revolutionary literature.
Jefferson read the classics, but he was selective: the political histories of Rome were his preference. A leading scholar of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn, argues that the British libertarian thinkers John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon were as important as Locke in providing Americans with the political ideas that founded their nation. In the 1720s and 1730s, both wrote political pamphlets in England, which were reproduced in colonial newspapers.
Their major work, Cato's Letters or Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects (1720 23) was published anonymously. Their principal ideas dealt with corruption in government. They were antiaristocratic, attacked highchurch pretensions, and were critical of the way English politics functioned.
They believed in civil liberties and opposed divine right monarchy and the passive obedience to government, which, they argued, must be accountable to the people. The 144 letters provide a compelling theoretical basis for freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Virtually half the private libraries in the American colonies contained bound volumes of Cato's Letters.
The most representative American Enlightenment thinkers, who, unlike their European counterparts, were also practicing politicians, were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson's pamphlet A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774) was his earliest contribution to the colonial debate. In this work, Jefferson stressed many Enlightenment ideas, such as natural rights.
Politically, he denied parliamentary authority over the colonies, recognizing no tie with the mother country except the king. Jefferson drafted the American Declaration of Independence with amendments by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, linking Enlightenment principles directly to the situation in the colonies. To fight for American independence was to fight for a government based on popular consent in place of a government based on monarchy.
John Adams never wrote a comprehensive treatise of political theory or Enlightened ideology. In addition to his letters, his ideas can be found in his numerous tracts such as Thoughts on Government (1776) and the Novanglus papers (1774 75). Adams favored the British Enlightenment thinkers over the French, although he did read the French philosophers.
From the British, he was indebted for his views on republican government, as a government of laws, and not of men. ? Here Adams meant that there would be little room for abuse in the conduct of government, for the law would have precedence over men's actions. Adams came up with a doctrine he called social happiness, meaning that the government would operate according to Newtonian science on its own laws and bring order and stability to society. In addition to his dedication to science and his belief in Deism, Franklin is responsible for the worldview of American liberal ideology, in which the moral and intellectual improvement of the individual led to an increase in wealth and success for the community.
In other words, the material progress of the individual and society would mean its overall moral progress. Much of Franklin's Enlightenment ideology is contained in his Autobiography (composed between 1771 and 1788 and first published by his grandson William Franklin Temple in 1818). In Part II, Franklin conceived of a project for arriving at moral perfection, a kind of scientific method for morality, in which he listed thirteen virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.
These words summarize the American interpretation of the Enlightenment. Leigh Whaley See also: American Philosophical Society; Deism; Science; Science and Technology (Chronology). Bibliography Bailyn, Bernard.
The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1992. May, Henry F.
The Enlightenment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Mayer, Donald H.
The Democratic Enlightenment. New York: G.P.
Putnam's Sons, 1976. Pole, J.R.
“ Enlightenment and the Politics of American Nature. ” In The Enlightenment in National Context, edited by Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Enlightenment and the Middle Ground – Golden Age of Gaia Enlightenment – Channeling Erik® Forget about Enlightenment Matthewscottwallace's Blog.