The American Enlightenment
In the 17th and 18th century, European communication, science, philosophy and politics were changed significantly during the Age of Reason. The philosophers in countries such as Great Britain and France criticized the traditional authority and adopted the idea that humanity was enhanced via rational thinking (Schmidt, 31). The Enlightenment generated many scholarly works such as scientific discoveries, books, essays, laws, and revolutions (Hanley and McMahon, p. 2). In this respect, the Enlightenment ideas directly influenced the French and Americans Revolutions. The American Enlightenment took place between 1714 and 1818 and greatly influenced the creation of the Republic. The European Enlightenment and American philosophy lead to the American Enlightenment (Zafirovski, 6). The Americans started to apply the scientific reasoning in politics and religion enhanced the religious tolerance. It also changed how the Americans conducted their studies in college, their literature and music (Hanley and McMahon, p. 13). In the American context, philosophers such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Thomas Paine adopted and invented revolutionary concepts about scientific prudence, experimental political organization.
The pre- and post-revolutionary period in the United States produced proper conditions for Enlightenment ideas to progress. The period prior to revolutionary years, the Americans experienced unfair laws such as in taxations and exploitative agenda from the colonial government (Marsden, 67). An English man Thomas Paine, however, opposed abuses in the American Colonies by the English powers. In addition, the period after revolutionary wars, Americans philosophers created a new government based on republican and liberal ideologies (Mennell, 56). In this regard, they produced crucial documents such as the United States Constitution.
The American Enlightenment in the 18th century was continuous with new life in French and British societies. They were characterized on four major themes, which included liberty, reason, skepticism and modernization (Torre, 13). Liberties and human rights took a central role in political ideas, particularly as they tended to limit the state powers coming before the introduction of states (Mennell, 58). John Locke’s ideas on universal human rights influenced Americans such as Thomas Jefferson to create the Declaration of Independence. Reason became a dominant theme during this period and people believed that rational thinking should replace the traditional beliefs (Hanley and McMahon, p. 33). In addition, the Americans became skeptical; hence, they began doubting supernatural, transcendent and miraculous forces that limited the scope of human reasoning and choice. Furthermore, modernization took the center stage where ideas founded on religious pluralism, rationality and science replaced beliefs and institutions founded on complete political, religious, moral authority (Torre, 15).
The American Enlightenment was an intellectual period that witnessed prolific discussion and writing between mid- and late 18th century. In addition, the American Enlightenment mirrored the similar occurrences during the European scientific revolution (Mennell, 66). The scientific revolution in Europe, witnessed the application of scientific reasoning to study concepts such as human religion, society and nature (Hanley and McMahon, p. 39). The scientists during enlightenment applied the scientific reasoning and experimentations to invent and learn the principles of nature such as natural laws, gravity and planets and understand philosophical principles (Zafirovski, 16). Moreover, the intellectuals criticized the mainstream authorities and beliefs. The determination to combine religion and science led to elimination of miracles, prophecy, exposed religion and produced rational thinking of Deism.
American Enlightenment philosophers questioned the irrationality, authoritarianism and the obscurantism generated by churches (Marsden, 71). French thinker, Voltaire produced a book showing Christianity as an instrument of oppressors and tyrants. In addition, he argued that religion was the illogical development of hostility to the establishment of reason and the growth of science. Therefore, many scientists believed in Deism, which was based on reason instead of dogma or religious revelations. Deism principles greatly affected the thinking of American philosophers such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams (Hanley and McMahon, p. 66). In this respect, the deism principles and Enlightenment philosophies enabled James Madison to establish religious tolerance as the core American rights in the Bills of Rights in the United States.
The pre-revolutionary period in the United States, many political and intellectual colonies’ leaders studied history in search of good models or guides of governments. During the Enlightenment, American philosophers were skeptical of democracy (Marsden, 78). The criticism was based on the Plato’s idea that democracy led to oppression while Aristotle believed that democracy was the best of the worst systems of government. Therefore, James Madison and John Adams, spread the anti-democratic principles that to invest a lot of political authority in the poor and uneducated citizens was to expose the society to risk of political and social disorder (Mennell, 112). However, although some American thinkers were against democracy, others strongly supported popular rule idea, according to European social contract theories (Hanley and McMahon, p. 37).
John Locke, a political theorist in England generated significant source of inspiration and influence to the American intellectuals. In 1691, Locke published a book “Treatises of Government’ that criticized the hierarchical and monarchical principles of governance that originated from the Divine Law of God. Contrary, Locke suggested that the government should be established via a social contract with the people. Therefore, if a ruler did not fulfill the contract, the people could legitimately depose him or her via peaceful or violent means (Mennell, 113). Most notably, Locke argued that since the people established government, they could abolish or change it. In case a state failed to respect the social contract by failing to protect basic rights of property, liberty and life, then the citizens had the right to overthrow and form a new government. Rousseau in 1762 insisted that citizens had a right to self-governments and had powers to choose people to enforce laws (Zafirovski, 21).
At the beginning of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine published the Common Sense, though his work was generated greatly from Locke’s ideas. The concepts produced one of the most important criticisms on political despotism (Schmidt, 42). Paine claimed that the British colonies in North America had the responsibility to violently takeover monarchical and corrupt British rulers. In addition, his book advocated for American independence (Marsden, 84). Moreover, he rejected the colonial idea that a good government applied a balance of democracy, aristocracy and monarchy. In this respect, he advocated for a republican form of government without aristocracy or king.
The American enlightenment thinkers also believed in the ideas of republicanism. In this respect, they promoted the concept that a nation should be ruled as a republic where the head of state was elected by a popular vote as opposed to appointment via a hereditary family line (Hanley and McMahon, p. 40). The American colonists were convinced that the British rule was not justified and was corrupt. Therefore, they formed the American Continental Army to liberate the nation under the leadership of George Washington. Moreover, in the last stages of the American Enlightenment, conservatism concepts emerged, mainly in response to French Revolution. Burke claimed that human personality was a result of staying in a political society as opposed to natural rights that affected political and social relations (Marsden, 83). Conservatives did not support the idea of social contract. Americans Enlightenment figures such as John Adams and James Madison had similar views with Burke’s conservatism. For instance, Madison in Federalist Paper suggested a conservative idea against several appeals to democracy because they undermined the political stability of the elected persons (Schmidt, 66). However, Jefferson proposed liberalism concepts that constitutional convention should be held after two decades.
American philosophers adopted the tolerant pluralism principles from Enlightenment thinkers in Europe. For instance, Scottish thinkers such as George Buchanan and John Knox motivated American Calvinists who developed tolerant and friendly institutions such as democratically established religion such as Presbyterian Church and secular public school (Mennell, 118). American tolerance was created on the belief that fear, hatred and belief of other creeds and races affected the economic trade, rights of expression and eroded the friendly relationship between nations (Hanley and McMahon, p. 41).
The American Enlightenment also witnessed scientific discoveries due to growth of skepticism and deism concerning religious doctrines. Deists engaged in scientific pursuits not only to meet their knowledge curiosity but also to understand the natural laws. The discovery of geocentric model through the work of Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus and natural laws of gravity by Isaac Newton eliminated the powers of miracles (Torre, 17). In addition, Newton established the Royal Society of England. Most of the pre-revolutionary scientist in America joined the Royal Society. However, after 1768, Benjamin Franklin established the American Philosophical Society and was the first president (Marsden, 87). In addition, during Enlightenment period, he was one of the most successful American scientists because of his work in electricity.
American Enlightenment was characterized by emphasis of religious tolerance, republicanism, democracy liberty and scientific innovation. The influence originated from both European and Americans intellectual elites that formed and a shared worldview (Zafirovski). Several key figures who shaped the enlightenment in America included Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Adam Smith and Locke John. The latter claimed that persons have the rights to abolish, alter or form new governments with their consents. Using the Enlightenment ideas Jefferson created Deceleration of Independence (Schmidt, 35). In most cases, the thinkers questioned the religious organizations because they viewed them as tyrannical and irrational.
Hanley, Ryan Patrick, and Darrin M McMahon. The Enlightenment. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Marsden, George M. The Twilight Of The American Enlightenment. New York: Basic Books, 2014. Print.
Mennell, Stephen. The American Civilizing Process. Cambridge: Polity, 2007. Print.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Hearing Things. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Print.
Torre, Jose R. The Enlightenment In America, 1720-1825. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008. Print.
Zafirovski, Milan. The Enlightenment And Its Effects On Modern Society. New York: Springer, 2011. Print.