The Enlightenment in America
Copyright © 2012 Henry J. Sage

The 18th century is known as the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. Historians do not necessarily cut off historic periods strictly by dates, and the portion of the 18th century known as the Age of Reason generally refers to the period from 1715 through 1789. The year 1715 was the last year the reign of Queen Anne and the end of The War of Spanish Succession. The year 1789 saw the beginning of the French Revolution. Dates aside, the Age of Reason was an age of extraordinary intellectual ferment. The scientific revolution, which had begun approximately a century earlier, transformed the way people looked at problems, not only in the realm of science, but in the general realm of public affairs. The principle behind the Age of Reason was that through the application of human intellect, reasonable decisions could be made about how people and nations were to conduct their business. Societies could be restructured for the betterment of all citizens through rational application of ideas.

The Age of Reason, or Enlightenment, altered people's view of religion as well. Revealed religion, the belief that human events are controlled by a divinity, and that truth can be acquired by divine revelation, was either discarded or modified into a belief system based on the idea  that the world was a rational place that could be controlled be adherence to rational processes.

lockeThe American Enlightenment is generally discussed in terms of America's political evolution, the thinking that led to the fomenting of a revolution against Great Britain and the creation of a modern republic. Many figures associated with Enlightenment thought have been regarded as influences on American thinking between 1760 and 1800. Among those commonly mentioned include John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Baron Montesquieu, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Denis Diderot and others. America had its own figures of the Enlightenment to be sure, most prominently among them being Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, to name a few. Many American historians, however, have found the origins of the American Enlightenment in the thinking of Roger Williams.

Most Americans students of history first encounter Roger Williams as his differences with the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts led to his being banished from the colony. He was a deeply religious man, and discussions of his contributions to American culture have tended to lean toward the theological. Williams, however, was most of all a political philosopher, and as such is thinking belongs in the discussion of American Enlightenment thought. He has been described as being the most Christian of Christians, a man who devoted his entire life to following the path of Jesus Christ. He insisted upon absolute adherence to the principles laid down by Christ and the board those practices which he felt contradicted the lessons of Scripture. He was not content with the approach of Puritans who remain within the fold of the Anglican church and attempted to reform from within. Rather, he was a separatist, believing that to associate with those who did not reject Anglicanism out right was tantamount to trafficking with Satan. While he approved the separation of the Anglican church from Rome, he nevertheless a board what were commonly referred to as remnants of potpourri, the residual influences of Roman Catholicism upon the practice of Protestant faiths. He would have none of that; the only way, the only path he could follow, was one of his own choosing.

His most important contribution to American thought is generally regarded as is advocating of the separation of church and state. In his writings he carefully detailed the roles of the church and the state and how they occupied separate realms. Churches functioned within the state but were no more an integral part of the state than were corporations organized to conduct business. Whatever happened within the structure of a church should have nothing to do with the business of the state. Conversely, the state should have no right to interfere with the business of the church, or with the practices of individuals in their relationship to the divine. He believed strongly that people of all faiths – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or faiths practiced by Indians – should be allowed to follow their own consciences without any outside interference whatsoever.

Related to his poor belief about the absolute freedom of people to practice religion as they sought was his belief in the equality of all beings. He rejected outright the divine right of kings to rule and advocated a system of government in which the people were sovereign. He was a Democrat long before the idea of democracy could pass muster among the political thinkers of the time. He was a proto-Republican before the idea of Republicanism was developed in the context of the American and French revolutions. In that regard he was truly a man ahead of his time, and enlightened thinker who lived a century ahead of the time when ideas such as his would become acceptable if not commonplace.

Thus the American Enlightenment was influenced strongly by the ideas developed in the salons of Paris, Berlin and London and adhered to in limited fashion by the so-called enlightened despots of that age: Catherine the great of Russia, Frederick the great of Prussia, Joseph of Austria and others. But the American Enlightenment took the ideas of the European political thinkers and shape them through the American experience, which in its own way had generated a new kind of politics. A nation in which individualism, self-reliance, and freedom from tight government control were normal, enlightened political thought such as Republicanism found fertile ground in which to develop.

fredericks tableThe 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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Updated November 7, 2016