The American Revolution and Enlightenment Thought Research Paper

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Revolution, Constitution and Enlightenment

The American Revolution and the ensuing U.S. Constitution put forward by the Federalists were both products of and directly informed by the European Enlightenment. The Founding Fathers were considerably influenced by thinkers like Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu (whose separation of powers served as the model of the three-branched government of the U.S.). This paper will explain how the European Enlightenment set the stage for the American Revolution and U.S. Constitution by putting out the ideas that the Americans would use as the basis of the political and social foundation.

The Enlightenment aka the Age of Reason was an Age in which natural philosophy assumed the vaulted position of guiding light over the preceding Age of Faith, which had served as the socio-political basis in Europe for centuries. The Reformation had upended the Age of Faith and introduced secularization into the political realm (Laux), particularly via the Peace of Westphalia, which put an end to the Thirty Years War and established a mere political truce among the warring nations—without, it should be added, the consent of the Roman Pontiff (Holsti). Voltaire celebrated the Peace of Westphalia as a move towards secularism and the separation of church and state, which he himself advocated (Elliott)—and which the U.S. would adopt as a political doctrine in the establishment of its Constitution—particularly in the First Amendment, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thus, there was a direct connection between Voltaire’s promotion of religions liberty (the separation of church and state in Europe) and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As Cobbs shows, Jefferson was all for the protection of religious liberty—which he demonstrated in his proposal to protect religious freedom in 1786 (Cobbs).

Even the Declaration of Independence was rooted in Enlightenment ideology. Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, for instance, wrote that people had the right “to change a government that did not protect natural rights of life, liberty and property” (“The Beginnings of Revolutionary Thinking”). The Declaration of Independence stated explicitly that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (Declaration of Independence). Thus, Jefferson and the Founding Fathers were lifting the principles for their rebellion against the Crown right out of the philosophical assertions of John Locke, the Enlightenment philosopher. The English Crown was acting tyrannical, the Americans argued, in denying them the right to pursue Life, Liberty and Happiness on their own terms—and so they felt justified in overthrowing the English government in America—just as Locke argued people had the right to do whenever life, liberty and property were threatened by an authoritarian government. Locke’s view of government was that it should serve to protect individual freedom and that the main law of nature was freedom (which is what Rousseau essentially said in The Social Contract as well). Locke refused to acknowledge the “divine right of kings”—and so too did the American Revolutionaries when they issued their Declaration of Independence.

When it came to organizing their own government, the American Revolutionaries continued to turn to Enlightenment thinkers. After all, they themselves were fully situated within the Age of Reason. Therefore, it only made sense that they would look to people like Montesquieu for guidance. For example, Montesquieu wrote in The Spirit of Laws (1748) that “there can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person”—an idea that Hamilton expressed in the Federalist Papers, regarding the three branches of government—the legislative (Congress), the executive (the President), and the judicial (the courts).

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Ironically, Jefferson disagreed (as did the Anti-Federalists, who voiced their concern that the U.S. Constitution and the federal, centralized government would usher in an era of tyranny like that which the Revolutionaries had just opposed in England, in spite of any so-called separation of powers). Jefferson was more direct in that he argued that the judicial branch of government would hold tyranny over the executive through its interpretation of the laws of the Constitution—which proved true enough in the Supreme Court…

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…the writings of everyone from Locke to Rousseau to Montesquieu to frame their new system and legitimize their stance. Only Adam Smith was objective enough to admit that the new system would not end well for many unless those in charge regulated society through the application of Old World values and virtues. America was not interested in those, though: it ushered in the New World order—and every coin produced by the U.S. Mint still says so today.

Summary

To a major extent the American Revolution and the US Constitution were a product of, and informed by, the European Enlightenment. The American Revolutionaries, from Thomas Jefferson to Ben Franklin to George Washington to Alexander Hamilton all relied upon the Enlightenment philosophers to justify their actions. The Declaration of Independence, signed by Founding Fathers, used the words and thoughts of John Locke to justify the Revolutionaries’ pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness and their right to overthrow the King of England since he refused to acknowledge their right to rule themselves as he saw fit. Such rebellion would never have been allowed in the Old World during the Age of Faith: it would have been put down and those advocating for freedom would have been ignored by the other countries as Europe during the Age of Faith was essentially united in terms of ideology. By the time of the Enlightenment, Europe was fractured and fragmented and alliances and periods of peace were purely political. Thus, when the American Revolutionaries rebelled against the Crown, it was not hard for them (thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Franklin) to win support from the French against the English. Rousseau, a major French Enlightenment philosopher, was used to give weight to the arguments of the Americans that their cause was just because it opposed tyranny and proclaimed equality and natural philosophy. The truth was the Americans were not interested in either but rather in consolidating their own power as the aristocratic ruling class of the New World. Their government would be by and for them—though they would say in their writings that it would be by….....

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Works Cited

“The Beginnings of Revolutionary Thinking.” U.S. History, 2019. http://www.ushistory.org/us/7a.asp

Cobbs, Elizabeth. Major Problems in American History Volume 1: To 1877 Fourth Edition. Cengage, 2015.

Declaration of Independence. U.S. History, 1776. http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/

Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. NY: Dover, 1995.

Elliott, J. H. Spain, Europe and the Wider World: 1500-1800. Yale University Press, 2009.

Epstein, R. The classical liberal constitution: The uncertain quest for limited government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2014.

Holsti, Kalevi. Peace and Conflict: Armed Conflicts and International Order 1648-1989. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Laux, John. Church History. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1933.

Library of Congress. Marbury v. Madison, 2018. https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/marbury.html

McNeese, T. The Robber Barons and the Sherman Antitrust Act. Chelsea House, 2009.

Montesquieu. The Spirit of Laws. Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co, 1873.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Rousseau: The Social Contract and other later political writings. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations. Penn State University Electronic Publication, 2005.

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