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The American Enlightenment: Intellectual and Social Revolution.
Enlightened Ideas of GovernmentIn 1689, an Englishman named JohnLocke published an anonymous essay titled Two Treatises of Government. In the first treatise, Locke argued that no monarchy had a divine right to exist; kings held power by the luck of their birth.
Locke's second treatise, stating that governments should only exist by the consent of the governed, was more influential in America. As you might imagine, Locke's ideas were unpopular with the people who held power in England, and he never acknowledged that he was the author of the Two Treatises.
Other Europeans contributed enlightened ideas of government, as well. The Baron de Montesquieu proposed that society might benefit from a separation of government powers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau went so far as to suggest that society should be ruled by the 'general will' of the people, essentially advocating for direct democracy.
The American EnlightenmentThe Enlightenment reached the colonies through the port cities. At first, such philosophy circulated only among the educated elite. Then, Benjamin Franklin, arguably the single most important figure of the Enlightenment in America, printed inexpensive pamphlets and newspapers to spread the ideas quickly.
He published Poor Richard's Almanack to entertain the colonists and instill Enlightenment values in them. While Europeans considered, discussed and sifted through these ideas for a century, Americans put them into practice.
Free from the kind of entrenched power that had dominated Europe for centuries, a generation of young American leaders was absolutely willing to question not only the role of the king, but the churches and even God Himself. A theology, known as rational Christianity, emerged.
It taught that God gave humans the ability to reason, allowing them to understand and follow moral teachings, regardless of which religious group they belonged to. Religious tolerance became even more widespread.
Many Americans moved toward Deism, a philosophical belief in a deity based on reason rather than faith. In Deism, God is sometimes compared to a watchmaker who makes a watch, winds it up and then leaves its maintenance to the person who owns it.
Deists believed that God created the world and set natural laws into motion and then his work was done. It is up to humans to keep the world running. Deists do not believe that God supernaturally intervenes in the world or human events. Some of the founding fathers, like Thomas Jefferson, were Deists. Many others were strongly influenced by Deism, even if they didn't claim to follow it.
Though a few Enlightenment thinkers discarded religion altogether, most tried to reconcile their belief in God with science and philosophy.
One important result was the belief in human rights - that if God created the world with laws that governed it, then He must have also established such natural laws for the humans He created. Americans began to believe that the intended role of government was to protect these God-given rights.
Combining these concepts of reason, enlightened government, religious tolerance and natural rights resulted in the American version of republicanism. Don't confuse the Enlightenment philosophy of republicanism with the modern political party. At the time, it was a complete reversal of the idea of divine right.
Divine Right teaches that a ruler gets authority from above - he or she is chosen by God Himself. Republicanism teaches that a ruler gets authority from below - leaders are chosen by the masses. By contrast, citizens get their rights from God, not from the monarch.
Republicanism gained wide-spread acceptance in America. The people knew first-hand that each colony could successfully rule itself without the help of divinely appointed monarchs. They had been doing it since Jamestown was founded, and even more so under the policy of salutary neglect.
Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet called Common Sense in language familiar to average Americans. It helped colonists better understand other Enlightenment philosophy and generated support for a revolution against British rule.
The Legacy of the EnlightenmentBut the Enlightenment was more than just the philosophical background for the American Revolution - it was a blueprint for a modern democratic society. Here, 'democratic' is not a reference to a modern political party, but the concept of a society in which all citizens participate equally.
Our earliest documents, including the Declaration of Independence, as well as the constitutions of the United States and all of the original states, cannot be separated from Enlightenment ideals, especially those of John Locke.
The Enlightenment also fostered the values that were necessary for cooperative citizenship - values such as patriotism, virtue and personal rights. It defined freedom as a right within the context of citizenship and civic responsibility.
These values were typified in the yeoman farmer - a common laborer who worked hard to earn a living, live at peace with his neighbors, but was willing to take up his rifle and fight for the rights God had given him. Such values have persisted in America to this day.