Could the American Revolution Have Happened Without the Age of Enlightenment?
Annette Nay, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2001
in the Age of Reason
In 1721 the
Persian Letters by Charles de Secondat and Baron de Montesquieu gave them
the tool to make humorous remarks and sharp criticisms about French society,
These were published secretly because people were punished for criticizing the
king. Their thoughts helped usher
in the age of Enlightenment because they helped people to begin to question and
think for themselves.
Hobbes’ on Social Contract
John Locke believed that all people have natural rights from birth such as
life liberty and property. In his
article called Two Treaties of Government, Locke states the following. These
same ideas are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.
In 1748, Montesquieu wrote The Spirit of the Laws. This article described checks and balances on government by dividing the functions of power between three separate branches of government to protects liberty. We can see his ideas about separation of governmental powers reflected in the United States Constitution. The separate branches of government are the legislative, judiciary, and the executive.
Voltaire or Francois-Marie Arouet opened peoples
eyes to the corruption by officials and aristocrats through his biting.
His writings allowed others to see the injustice of slave trade and
religious prejudice. Our governments Declaration of Independence also reflects
British government corruption which hurt the American colonies.
Voltaire writings defended Freedom of Speech.
He was supposed to have said, “I do not agree with a word that you say,
but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Our Bill of Right also stands for freedom of speech.
In 1751 Denis Diderot produced a 28 volume
encyclopedias. His purpose for
writing them was to change the general way of thinking by explaining the new
thinking on government, philosophy, and religion. These encyclopedias were translated into other languages and
spread Enlightenment ideas to the rest of the world and the American colonies.
Diderot’s ideas could have helped form the ideas for our government.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the champion of democracy because he believed
that authority lies with the people. In
The Social Contract written in 1762 Rousseau
Man is born free.
by a freely formed government are good.
Rousseau put faith in the general will of the majority. He said that the majority should always work for the common good of the people. He hated political and economic oppression and supported revolt. Rousseau influenced thinkers for more than 200 years and may have influenced the writers of our Constitution..
Enlightenment ideas helped open people’s minds to a new way of thinking and not to except the ways of the past. The ideas:
The Birth of the
1776, Thomas Paine wrote his Common Sense pamphlet which called
American colonists to declare independence so they could have the freedoms
brought by natural laws and end of ancient prejudice and tyranny.
He believed in the themes of Enlightenment and wanted all men to join him
in these beliefs.
The colonists had heated debates over the
Enlightenment ideas of Thomas Paine, but finally they came to agree with them.
They decided to declared their independence from England.
This was because they felt they were entitled to the rights of English
citizens, but they were not given these rights.
Parliament passed new laws to raise taxes from the colonies.
The colonists resented attacks on their rights.
They wanted no taxation without representation.
Since there was no representation in Parliament for the colonists, they
felt that Parliament had no right to tax them.
Parliament repealed so of the measures, but asserted its right to tax the
colonists without their representation in that government.
In 1773, when the Boston Tea Party occurred,
Parliament passed harsh laws to punish Massachusetts.
This angered the colonies too. In
1776 the Continental Congress declared independence from Britain.
Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence which reflected the ideas of John Locke’s and other Enlightened thinkers. These were:
Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4 1776 stated that:
The Impact of Enlightenment Ideas on the Constitution
The writers of our Constitution
more than likely looked at the ideas of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau.
They used the Enlightenment ideas of social contract to set up the
government, to be governed by the people to preserve their natural rights and
for the good of the whole.
Federal government was separated into three branches
which according to Montesquieu would provide checks and balances to govern them
The Bill of Rights contained the first 10 amendments
to the US Constitution recognized that people had basic rights that government
must protect. It stated the rights
of all men to freedom of religion, speech, the press, trial by jury, to hold
private property to bear arms, right to a speedy trial, and etc.
The US Constitution set up a representative
government with elected legislature to do the will of the people.
Since our Constitution and the Bill of Rights hold
many of the ideas of Enlightenment, it is probably safe to say that the founding
fathers of those documents were influenced by those who thought that way.
It is also safe to say that without those ideas so
prevalent at the time that the American colonies would still have felt it their
duty to do whatever Britain said even though they did not like it.
It is believed that without the age of Enlightenment
the Revolution may never have taken place.
If it did it could be assumed that the form of government we have would
not have been as good without the ideas put forth by the Enlightenment.
ReferenceEllis, Elisabeth; Esler, Anthony; Beers, Burton; & Hart, Diane (1999), World History – Connections to Today – The Modern Era, Prentice Hall: New Jersey.
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