The Enlightenment in America
Copyright © 2007 Henry J. Sage
The period known as the European Enlightenment was also known as the Age of Reason, a time when the full scope of human existence was carefully examined, with an eye toward trying to perfect human society as much as possible. It was felt that the full application of man's intellect could rescue society from the forces of despotism. Encompassing the years 1715 to 1789, the enlightenment was probably as important in America as was in Europe. In that age of classical thinking the European philosophers studied with great zeal the institutions of modern government with the same intensity with which scientists such as Newton had probed the mysteries of the universe and the worlds of physics and mathematics.
The German word for Enlightenment is “Aufklaerung”—literally a “clearing up.” It is a useful word because it helps explain what the enlightenment tried to achieve. From the time of the scientific revolution that grew out of the Renaissance, human knowledge had been growing at an exponential rate, and the Enlightenment sought to draw on that knowledge in order to improve the human condition, among other things by improving man's institutions, including government.
Thomas Paine, who authored Common Sense, a reasoned argument for American independence, later wrote:
You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. ... The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.
In Europe the Enlightenment centered around the salons of Paris and was famous for the “philosophes”—popular philosophers—such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau. Their political ideas spawned the age of the Enlightened despots, people like Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia, both of whom were enlightened more in theory than in fact, it may be said. The greatest irony of the Enlightenment is that those political writers saw England as the most enlightened nation in Europe, and it was the place where to people first revolted—in the American colonies. American political leaders like Jefferson, Franklin, James Otis, John Adams and others were heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinking. Indeed, it may be said that the most profound result of the European enlightenment was Jefferson's great Declaration, which he himself claimed was a synthesis of American thinking.
From Paris to Berlin, St. Petersburg and Vienna, the rulers of that era became known as “enlightened despots.” While holding nearly absolute power over their citizens for the most, they considered themselves to be modern and progressive in the sense that they listened to the popular philosophers of the time, people like Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau and others. Those “philosophes” were offering ideas for new ways to organize society, and the rulers tried to govern in a way that reflected those uplifting ideas. In practice, society probably changed very little during the Age of reason, but the ideas put forth were advanced for their time.
The Enlightenment was important America because it provided the philosophical basis of the American Revolution. The Revolution was more than just a protest against English authority; as it turned out, the American Revolution provided a blueprint for the organization of a democratic society. And while imperfectly done, for it did not address the terrible problem of slavery, the American Revolution was an enlightened concept of government whose most profound documents may have been the American Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution. To feel the full impact of the Enlightenment on America one needs only to look at the first inaugural address of Thomas Jefferson, who, along with Benjamin Franklin, is considered to be the American most touched by the ideas of the Enlightenment.
Jefferson wrote: If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
While the locus of the Enlightenment thinking is generally considered to have been the salons in Paris and Berlin, the practical application of those ideas was carried out most vividly in the American colonies.
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