The American Enlightenment was a gradual but powerful awakening that established the ideals of democracy, liberty, and religious tolerance in the people of America.
If there were just one development that directly caused the American Revolution and uplifted the intellectual culture of the continent while it was only a British colony, it would be the American Enlightenment. Broadly, the Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that changed the fundamental perspective of the masses, urging them to foster skepticism and apply scientific principles in matters of religion and morality.
Its chief values were:
- Religious Tolerance
The movement gained momentum with the publication of landmark texts like Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, and the Jefferson Bible, but the most influential thinker was undoubtedly John Locke, whose ideas spread to the colonies and across Europe.
John Locke (1632-1704)
Widely regarded as the Father of Liberalism, John Locke published “Two Treatises of Government,” which helped shape Revolutionary thought. Despite being English, Locke summarily rejected the aristocratic form of government, and maintained that any governing body must grow out of the people and work for the common welfare.
Much of the credit goes to Locke for rejecting the idea of original sin, and focusing instead on the self, which he believed was a blank slate (tabula rasa) on which experience writes by creating impressions. This idea of the individual creating his or her own destiny led Benjamin Franklin and others to adopt the ambition of freedom.
Locke was also among the first to recognize the futility of imposing a common religion on people around the world, which he argued could not be reconciled by “human judges,” and would serve no purpose. This became critical for the Protestant colonies of America, which were being harassed under the Catholic King George II.
Main Ideas of the American Enlightenment
The Enlightenment caused a shift in the cultural and social attitudes of the people, bringing in some new and radical ideas.
Republicanism:The doctrine of republicanism asserts a system of a government that is elected by the people of the nation. The roots of this ideology go back to ancient Greece, when the concept of a democratic government was examined by philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.
Individual Liberty:“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” developed as the motto of this era, which forms the cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution today. Since the colonies had very few individual rights, they declared certain fundamental rights that they deemed “inalienable.”
Democracy:The colonies had no say in the formation of the government, and had no representation in the law-making process. Consequently, they were attracted to the idea of democracy, where the government is “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as Lincoln later expressed in his Gettysburg Address.
Religious Tolerance:Much impetus for the ideas of religious tolerance came from the rule of King George II, who was a staunch Catholic and did not allow freedom of religion to Protestants in New England. Voltaire was among the first to denounce Christianity and other organized religions as mere ploys to support monarchy. What emerged was Deism, which was more or less a new religion that considered reason its foundation. In Deism, there is no interference by a deity, and man controls his own destiny.
These ideas stirred the masses into action, as the people dreamed of carving their own futures. Adopted by the Founding Fathers, Enlightenment ideals became the vision for modern-day America, where these ideologies are deeply rooted in the nation.