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Spread of Enlightenment in the colonies- Part I

Spread of Enlightenment in the colonies- Part I

American Enlightenment

  • The American Enlightenment occurred during the eighteenth century among thinkers in British North America and the early United States and was inspired by the ideas of the British and French Enlightenments. It led to the American Revolution, and the creation of the American Republic.
  • Based on the metaphor of bringing light to the Dark Age, the Age of the Enlightenment shifted allegiances away from absolute authority, whether religious or political, to more skeptical and optimistic attitudes about human nature, religion and politics.
  • In the American context, thinkers such as Thomas Paine, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin invented and adopted revolutionary ideas about scientific rationality, religious toleration and experimental political organization—ideas that would have far-reaching effects on the development of the fledgling nation.
    • Some coupled science and religion in the notion of deism;
    • others asserted the natural rights of man in the anti-authoritarian doctrine of liberalism; and
    • still others touted the importance of cultivating virtue, enlightened leadership and community in early forms of republican thinking.
  • At least six ideas came to punctuate American Enlightenment thinking:
    • deism,
    • liberalism,
    • republicanism,
    • conservatism,
    • toleration and
    • scientific progress.
  • Many of these were shared with European Enlightenment thinkers, but in some instances took a uniquely American form.
  • The pre- and post-revolutionary era in American history generated conditions for Enlightenment thought to thrive on an order comparable to that witnessed in the European Enlightenments.
    • In the pre-revolutionary years:
      • Americans reacted to the misrule of King George III, the unfairness of Parliament (“taxation without representation”) and exploitative treatment at the hands of a colonial power: the English Empire.
      • The Englishman-cum-revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote the famous pamphlet The Rights of Man, decrying the abuses of the North American colonies by their English masters.
    • In the post-revolutionary years:
      • A whole generation of American thinkers would found a new system of government on liberal and republican principles, articulating their enduring ideas in documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers and the United States Constitution.
  • Although distinctive features arose in the eighteenth-century American context, much of the American Enlightenment was continuous with parallel experiences in British and French society.
    • Four themes recur in both European and American Enlightenment:
      • Modernization:
        • Modernization means that beliefs and institutions based on absolute moral, religious and political authority (such as the divine right of kings and the Ancien Régime) will become increasingly eclipsed by those based on science, rationality and religious pluralism.
      • Skepticism:
        • Many Enlightenment thinkers—especially the French philosophes, such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot—subscribed to some form of skepticism, doubting appeals to miraculous, transcendent and supernatural forces that potentially limit the scope of individual choice and reason.
      • Reason:
        • Reason that is universally shared and definitive of the human nature also became a dominant theme in Enlightenment thinkers’ writings, particularly Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” and his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.
      • Liberty:
        • The fourth theme, liberty and rights assumed a central place in theories of political association, specifically as limits state authority originating prior to the advent of states (that is, in a state of nature) and manifesting in social contracts, especially in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government and Thomas Jefferson’s drafts of the Declaration of Independence.

Six Key Ideas of American Enlightenment

  • At least six ideas came to punctuate American Enlightenment thinking: deism, liberalism, republicanism, conservatism, toleration and scientific progress.
  • Many of these were shared with European Enlightenment thinkers, but in some instances took a uniquely American form.
  • Deism:
    • European Enlightenment thinkers conceived tradition, custom and prejudice as barriers to gaining true knowledge of the universal laws of nature.
      • The solution was deism or understanding God’s existence as divorced from holy books, divine providence, revealed religion, prophecy and miracles; instead basing religious belief on reason and observation of the natural world.
    • Deists appreciated God as a reasonable Deity.
      • God created the universal laws that govern nature, and afterwards humans realize God’s will through sound judgment and wise action.
      • Rather than fight members of the Catholic faith with violence and intolerance, most deists resorted to the use of tamer weapons such as humor and mockery.
    • Both moderate and radical American Enlightenment thinkers, such as James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and George Washington, were deists.
      • Many subscribed to the populist version of deism advanced by Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason.
      • Franklin was remembered for stating in the Constitutional Convention that “the longer I live, the more convincing proof I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men.”
      • In what would become known as the Jefferson Bible, Jefferson chronicles the life and times of Jesus Christ from a deist perspective, eliminating all mention of miracles or divine intervention.
      • God for deists such as Jefferson never loomed large in humans’ day-to-day life beyond offering a moral or humanistic outlook and the resource of reason to discover the content of God’s laws.
      • But American deists did not deny God’s existence, largely because the majority of the populace still remained strongly religious, traditionally pious and supportive of the good works (for example monasteries, religious schools and community service) that the clergy did.
  • Liberalism:
    • Another idea central to American Enlightenment thinking is liberalism, that is, the notion that humans have natural rights and that government authority is not absolute, but based on the will and consent of the governed.
    • Rather than a radical or revolutionary doctrine, liberalism was rooted in the commercial harmony and tolerant Protestantism embraced by merchants in Northern Europe, particularly Holland and England.
    • Liberals favored the interests of the middle class over those of the high-born aristocracy, an outlook of tolerant pluralism that did not discriminate between consumers or citizens based on their race or creed, a legal system devoted to the protection of private property rights, and an ethos of strong individualism over the passive collectivism associated with feudal arrangements.
    • The claim that private individuals have fundamental God-given rights, such as to property, life, liberty and to pursue their conception of good, begins with the English philosopher John Locke, but also finds expression in Thomas Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
      • The U.S. Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, guarantees a schedule of individual rights based on the liberal ideal like the rights of free speech, religious liberty, right to bear arms and habeas corpus, among others.
  • Republicanism:
    • While prefigured by the European Enlightenment, the American Enlightenment also promoted the idea that a nation should be governed as a republic, whereby the state’s head is popularly elected, not appointed through a hereditary blood-line.
    • As North American colonists became increasingly convinced that British rule was corrupt and inimical to republican values, they joined militias and eventually formed the American Continental Army under George Washington’s command.
    • The Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer, which had its roots in the similar Roman ideal, represented the eighteenth-century American as both a hard-working agrarian and as a citizen-soldier devoted to the republic.
    • When elected to the highest office of the land, George Washington famously demurred when offered a royal title, preferring instead the more republican title of President.
    • Republican ideas were a formative influence on American Enlightenment thinking.
  • Conservatism:
    • Though the Enlightenment is more often associated with liberalism and republicanism, an undeniable strain of conservatism emerged in the last stage of the Enlightenment, mainly as a reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution.
    • In 1790 Edmund Burke anticipated the dissipation of order and decency in French society following the revolution in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.
    • Though it is argued that Burkean conservatism was a reaction to the Enlightenment (or anti-Enlightenment), conservatives were also operating within the framework of Enlightenment ideas.
      • Some Enlightenment claims about human nature are turned back upon themselves and shown to break down when applied more generally to human culture.
        • For instance, Enlightenment faith in universal declarations of human rights do more harm than good when they contravene the conventions and traditions of specific nations, regions and localities.
      • Similar to the classical republicans, Burke believed that human personality was the product of living in a political society, not a set of natural rights that predetermined our social and political relations.
    • Conservatives attacked the notion of a social contract as a mythical construction that overlooked the plurality of groups and perspectives in society, a fact which made universal consent impossible.
    • Burke only insisted on a tempered version, not a wholesale rejection of Enlightenment values.
    • Conservatism featured strongly in American Enlightenment thinking.
      • While Burke was critical of the French Revolution, he supported the American Revolution for disposing of English colonial misrule while creatively readapting British traditions and institutions to the American temperament.
      • American Enlightenment thinkers such as James Madison and John Adams held views that echoed and in some cases anticipated Burkean conservatism, leading them to criticize the rise of revolutionary France and the popular pro-French Jacobin clubs during and after the French Revolution.
      • In the forty-ninth Federalist Paper, James Madison deployed a conservative argument against frequent appeals to democratic republics on constitutional questions because they threatened to undermine political stability.
    • Madison’s conservative view was opposed to Jefferson’s liberal view that a constitutional convention should be convened every twenty years, for “the earth belongs to the living generation,” and so each new generation should be empowered to reconsider its constitutional norms.
  • Toleration:
    • Tolerance of difference developed in parallel with the early liberalism prevalent among Northern Europe’s merchant class.
      • It reflected their belief that hatred or fear of other races and creeds interfered with economic trade, extinguished freedom of thought and expression, eroded the basis for friendship among nations and led to persecution and war.
      • Tiring of religious wars, European Enlightenment thinkers imagined an age in which enlightened reason not religious dogmatism governed relations between diverse peoples with loyalties to different faiths.
    • American thinkers inherited this principle of tolerant pluralism from their European Enlightenment forebearers.
      • Inspired by the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, American Calvinists created open, friendly and tolerant institutions such as the secular public school and democratically organized religion.
      • Many American Enlightenment thinkers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, read and agreed with John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration.
        • In it, Locke argued that government is ill-equipped to judge the rightness or wrongness of opposing religious doctrines, faith could not be coerced and if attempted the result would be greater religious and political discord.
        • So, civil government ought to protect liberty of conscience, the right to worship as one chooses and refrain from establishing an official state-sanctioned church.
      • For America’s founders, the fledgling nation was to be a land where persons of every faith or no faith could settle and thrive peacefully and cooperatively without fear of persecution by government or fellow citizens.
      • Benjamin Franklin’s belief that religion was an aid to cultivating virtue led him to donate funds to every church in Philadelphia.
      • In 1777, Thomas Jefferson drafted a religious liberty bill for Virginia to disestablish the government-sponsored Anglican Church—often referred to as “the precursor to the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment”—which eventually passed with James Madison’s help.
  • Scientific Progress:
    • The Enlightenment enthusiasm for scientific discovery was directly related to the growth of deism and skepticism about received religious doctrine.
    • Deists engaged in scientific inquiry not only to satisfy their intellectual curiosity, but to respond to a divine calling to expose God’s natural laws.
    • Advances in scientific knowledge—whether the rejection of the geocentric model of the universe because of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo’s work or the discovery of natural laws such as Newton’s mathematical explanation of gravity—removed the need for a constantly intervening God.
    • With the release of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia in 1660, faith in scientific progress took institutional form in the Royal Society of England, the Académie des Sciences in France and later the Academy of Sciences in Germany.
    • In pre-revolutionary America, scientists or natural philosophers belonged to the Royal Society until 1768, when Benjamin Franklin helped create and then served as the first president of the American Philosophical Society.
      • Franklin became one of the most famous American scientists during the Enlightenment period because of his many practical inventions and his theoretical work on the properties of electricity.

American Enlightenment Thinkers

  • Thomas Paine:
    • Thomas Paine was an England-born political philosopher and writer who supported revolutionary causes in America and Europe.
    • Published in 1776 to international acclaim, “Common Sense” was the first pamphlet to advocate American independence.
      • “Common Sense” is credited as playing a crucial role in convincing colonists to take up arms against England.
      • In it, Paine argues that representational government is superior to a monarchy or other forms of government based on aristocracy and heredity.
      • The pamphlet proved so influential that John Adams reportedly declared, “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
    • After writing the “The American Crisis” papers during the Revolutionary War, Paine returned to Europe and offered a stirring defense of the French Revolution with “Rights of Man.”
      • Paine published his book Rights of Man in two parts in 1791 and 1792, a rebuttal of the writing of Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke and his attack on the French Revolution, of which Paine was a supporter. Paine journeyed to Paris to oversee a French translation of the book in the summer of 1792.
    • His political views led to a stint in prison; after his release, he produced his last great essay, “The Age of Reason,” a controversial critique of institutionalized religion and Christian theology.
      • Paine’s two-volume treatise on religion, The Age of Reason, was published in 1794 and 1795, with a third part appearing in 1802.
      • The first volume functions as a criticism of Christian theology and organized religion in favor of reason and scientific inquiry. It was advocacy of deism.
      • The second volume is a critical analysis of the Old Testament and the New Testament of the Bible, questioning the divinity of Jesus Christ.
  • Benjamin Franklin:
    • Benjamin Franklin, the author, printer, scientist and statesman who led America through a tumultuous period of colonial politics, a revolutionary war and its founding as a nation.
    • In his Autobiography, he extolled the virtues of thrift, industry and money-making.
    • For Franklin, the self-interested pursuit of material wealth is only virtuous when it coincides with the promotion of the public good through philanthropy and voluntarism—what is often called “enlightened self-interest.”
    • He believed that reason, free trade and a cosmopolitan spirit serve as faithful guides for nation-states to cultivate peaceful relations.
    • Within nation-states, Franklin thought that “independent entrepreneurs make good citizens” because they pursue “attainable goals” and are “capable of living a useful and dignified life.”
    • In his autobiography, Franklin claims that the way to “moral perfection” is to cultivate thirteen virtues (temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility).
    • Franklin favored voluntary associations over governmental institutions as mechanisms to channel citizens’ extreme individualism and isolated pursuit of private ends into productive social outlets.
      • Not only did Franklin advise his fellow citizens to create and join these associations, but he also founded and participated in many himself.
    • Franklin was a staunch defender of federalism, a critic of narrow parochialism, and a strong advocate of religious liberty.
  • Thomas Jefferson:
    • A Virginian statesman, scientist and diplomat, Jefferson is best known for drafting the Declaration of Independence.
    • Agreeing with Benjamin Franklin, he substituted “pursuit of happiness” for “property” in Locke’s schedule of natural rights, so that liberty to pursue the widest possible human ends would be accommodated.
    • Jefferson also exercised immense influence over the creation of the United States’ Constitution through his extended correspondence with James Madison during the 1787 Constitutional Convention (since Jefferson was absent, serving as a diplomat in Paris).
    • Just as Jefferson saw the Declaration as a test of the colonists’ will to revolt and separate from Britain, he also saw the Convention in Philadelphia, almost eleven years later, as a grand experiment in creating a new constitutional order.
    • As per Thomas Jefferson: “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”
    • Jefferson’s words capture the idea that constitutions are living documents that transform over time in pace with popular thought, imagination and opinion.
  • James Madison:
    • Heralded as the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison was, besides one of the most influential architects of the U.S. Constitution, a man of letters, a politician, a scientist and a diplomat who left an enduring legacy on American philosophical thought.
    • As a tireless advocate for the ratification of the Constitution, Madison advanced his most groundbreaking ideas in his jointly authoring The Federalist Papers with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton.
      • Two of his most enduring ideas are contained there
        • the large republic thesis and
        • the argument for separation-of-powers and checks-and-balances (influnced by Montesquieu, the seventeenth-century French philosopher)
    • In the tenth Federalist paper, Madison explains the problem of factions, namely, that the development of groups with shared interests is inevitable and dangerous to republican government.
      • If we try to vanquish factions, then we will in turn destroy the liberty upon which their existence and activities are founded.
      • When factions formed inside the government, a clever institutional design of checks and balances (first John Adams’s idea, where each branch would have a hand in the others’ domain) would avert excessive harm, so that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition”.
  • John Adams:
    • John Adams was also a founder, statesman, diplomat and eventual President who contributed to American Enlightenment thought.
    • Among his political writings, three stand out:
      • Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1776),
      • A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America Against the Attack of M. Turgot (1787-8), and
      • Discourses on Davila (1791).
    • In the Dissertation, Adams faults Great Britain for deciding to introduce canon and feudal law, “the two greatest systems of tyranny,” to the North American colonies.
      • Once introduced, elections ceased in the North American colonies, British subjects felt enslaved and revolution became inevitable.
    • In the Defense, Adams offers an uncompromising defense of republicanism.
      • He disputes Turgot’s apology for unified and centralized government, arguing that insurance against consolidated state power and support for individual liberty require separating government powers between branches and installing careful checks and balances.
      • Nevertheless, a strong executive branch is needed to defend the people against “aristocrats” who will attempt to deprive liberty from the mass of people.
    • Revealing the Enlightenment theme of conservatism, Adams criticized the notion of unrestricted popular rule or pure democracy in the Discourses.
      • Since humans are always desirous of increasing their personal power and reputation, government must be designed to constrain the effects of these passionate tendencies.
      • Adams writes: “Consider that government is intended to set bounds to passions which nature has not limited; and to assist reason, conscience, justice, and truth in controlling interests which, without it, would be as unjust as uncontrollable.”
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