Could the American Revolution Have Happened Without the Age of Enlightenment?

Annette Nay, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2001

Philosophy 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.

  1. Government is formed to protect people’s natural rights.
  2. Government should have limited power.
  3. The type of government should be accepted by all citizens.
  4. Rejected absolute monarchy and thereby sides with Parliament against the Stuart Kings.
  5. Government has an obligation to those it governs.
  6. People have the right to overthrow government if the it fails its obligations or takes away natural rights (revolution)

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 states:

  1. Man is born free.

  2. Controls by a freely formed government are good.

  3. Consent to a form of governments means that the individual gives up self-interest in favor of the common good.
  4. When government is by the consent of the governed the people retain their rights.

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..

The Enlightenment

Enlightenment ideas helped open people’s minds to a new way of thinking and not to except the ways of the past.  The ideas:

  1. Challenged old ways of thinking.
  2. Questioned divine-right of rule.
  3. Taught that people should be able to gain material well-being, social justice, and happiness in this life, not just the next.

The Birth of the American Republic

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:

  1. Unalienable or natural rights
  2. Government set to protect personal rights.
  3. Government gaining power from consent of those it governs.
  4. The people had the right to abolish an unjust government.

The Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4 1776 stated that:

  1. Britain had taken away the American colonists natural rights.
  2. The people had the right to abolish an unjust government
  3. They had the right to set up a new government that would protect them.

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.

Reference

Ellis, Elisabeth; Esler, Anthony; Beers, Burton; & Hart, Diane (1999),  World History – Connections to Today – The Modern Era,  Prentice Hall: New Jersey.

Annette Nay, Ph.D.

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