The Enlightenment was crucial in determining almost every aspect of colonial America, most notably in terms of politics, government, and religion. Without the central ideas and figures of the Enlightenment, the United States would have been drastically different since these concepts shaped the country in its formative years. Both during and after the American Revolution many of the core ideas of the Enlightenment were the basis for monumental tracts such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Concepts such as freedom from oppression, natural rights, and new ways of thinking about governmental structure came straight from Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke and forged the foundations for both colonial and modern America. All aspects of life, even religion, were affected by the Enlightenment and many key figures from American history such as Thomas Jefferson were greatly influenced by the movement.
The American Revolution and many of the events to follow was a culmination of many of the ideas of the Enlightenment. The Revolution came about after a series of unfair taxes upon the colonists by the British government who needed this extra income to help them recover from their wars abroad. Until this point, the colonists were only paying taxes that would go to support localized projects and these taxes, most notably the Stamp Tax and the taxes on tea, were seen as completely unwarranted. Using the Enlightenment principles of freedom and reason, the colonists declared these taxes unfair and stood up against oppression. These early Americans wished to have their own government that was based on Enlightenment principles and thus the Revolution occurred. Locke’s conception of natural rights for all of mankind was being violated by British oppression and it became necessary to draft a government and code that was conducive to guaranteeing everyone natural rights under law.
One of the first steps in the formation of the United States that was based upon Enlightenment ideals was the creation of the Declaration of Independence. This sought to promise personal freedom to all citizens and this was to be guaranteed by means of a new form of government, one that was based on the people’s right to have a say in their government. As the country moved toward the drafting of the Constitution, the ideas of several Enlightenment philosophers shaped the direction American political leaders tool. For instance, Montesquieu’s idea about the balance of power between three branches of government was explicitly used just as Rousseau’s ideas about the power of democracy and consent of the people were in the formation of the new government.
Another way that the Enlightenment helped to shape the colonies was in terms of religion. With the Great Awakening came a new understanding of America’s early relationship to God and the Church. Instead of one all-powerful church that almost required membership, Protestant ideals based on Enlightenment principles of free will and freedom from institutions allowed people to choose membership in a church rather than be forced into one. Although during the Enlightenment there was a very secular focus, in America this was not the case. The colonies were still very religious but they used the ideas of their freedom to choose that were based on the Enlightenment. Instead of being tied to one religious authority, there were many choices in the colonies and people had a right to choose how to establish and maintain their connection to God.
Key figures in the founding of the United States such as Thomas Jefferson were greatly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment which meant that the country was as well. Jefferson was a perfect man of the Enlightenment as he was both classically educated and trained in the humanities as well as very practical and empirical. As the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson shaped the country by solidifying the ideas of natural rights in terms of government and religion. In addition, he understood the importance of education in making these ideals work in the new nation and founded the University of Virginia. In many ways, Jefferson represents the way Enlightenment ideals could be put into practice in the new colonies. Other men, such as Benjamin Franklin for example, were similar and since they had such a hand in formulating many of the institutions and tracts the country is based on, their Enlightenment ideas live on
Without the Enlightenment as the philosophical basis of this country, one can only imagine how different would be today. Important guarantees of human and natural rights, expressions of freedom and the rights of citizens to have free choice and practice religious freedom are all vital aspects in America still. Locke, Newton, and other Enlightenment thinkers put forth ideas about liberty and personal will that went on to be key aspects in the most important documents in America such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Other articles in the History Archives that are related to this topic include: A Comparison of the French Revolution and American Revolution • The Influence of the Renaissance on Modern American Society • Marx and Locke: Comparison of Views on Government, Property and Labor • Puritan Influences on Modern American Culture and Thought • Common Themes in Romanticism, The Enlightenment, and the Renaissance