American Enlightenment: Wikis


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The American Enlightenment is a term sometimes employed to describe the intellectual culture of the British North American colonies and the early United States (as they became known following the American Revolution). It was a part of a larger intellectual movement known as the Age of Enlightenment. Influenced by the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the Enlightenment took scientific reasoning and applied it to human nature, society and religion. Politically the age is distinguished by an emphasis upon liberty, democracy, republicanism and religious tolerance – culminating in the drafting of the United States Declaration of Independence. Attempts to reconcile science and religion resulted in a widespread rejection of prophecy, miracle and revealed religion in preference for Deism – especially by Thomas Paine in "The Age of Reason" and by Thomas Jefferson in his short Jefferson Bible – from which all supernatural aspects were removed.


The Enlightenment in America, Britain and France

Historians of the Enlightenment, including Jonathan Israel and Henry F. May, distinguish two strands of intellectual thought within the philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe – a Moderate Enlightenment and a Radical or Revolutionary Enlightenment. The Moderate Enlightenment, dominant in the Scottish Enlightenment and in England, was represented by the thought of David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and James Hutton, whilst the Revolutionary Enlightenment, more dominant in France, was represented by the thought of Denis Diderot (1713–1784), Baron d'Holbach (1723–1789), Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1717–1783) and Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771) The American Enlightenment borrowed from both traditions. From the Moderate Enlightenment in Scotland it inherited the economic liberalism of Adam Smith (1723–1790) and the pluralist constitutional politics of David Hume (1711–1776) whilst from the Radical or Revolutionary Enlightenment in France, especially through the thought of Thomas Paine (1737–1809), it inherited Republicanism and the rhetoric of Revolution.

Republicanism: Government of the People, by the People, for the People

In recent years a debate has developed over its role in the American Revolution and in the British radicalism of the eighteenth century. For many decades the consensus was that liberalism, especially that of John Locke, was paramount and that republicanism had a distinctly secondary role.[1]

The new interpretations were pioneered by J.G.A. Pocock who argued in The Machiavellian Moment (1975) that, at least in the early eighteenth-century, republican ideas were just as important as liberal ones. Pocock's view is now widely accepted.[2]. Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood pioneered the argument that the Founding Fathers of the United States were more influenced by republicanism than they were by liberalism. Cornell University Professor Isaac Kramnick, on the other hand, argues that Americans have always been highly individualistic and therefore Lockean.[3]

In the decades before the American Revolution (1776), the intellectual and political leaders of the colonies studied history intently, looking for guides or models for good (and bad) government. They especially followed the development of republican ideas in England.[4] Pocock explained the intellectual sources in America:[5]

"The Whig canon and the neo-Harringtonians, John Milton, James Harrington and Sidney, Trenchard, Gordon and Bolingbroke, together with the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance masters of the tradition as far as Montesquieu, formed the authoritative literature of this culture; and its values and concepts were those with which we have grown familiar: a civic and patriot ideal in which the personality was founded in property, perfected in citizenship but perpetually threatened by corruption; government figuring paradoxically as the principal source of corruption and operating through such means as patronage, faction, standing armies (opposed to the ideal of the militia), established churches (opposed to the Puritan and deist modes of American religion) and the promotion of a monied interest — though the formulation of this last concept was somewhat hindered by the keen desire for readily available paper credit common in colonies of settlement. A neoclassical politics provided both the ethos of the elites and the rhetoric of the upwardly mobile, and accounts for the singular cultural and intellectual homogeneity of the Founding Fathers and their generation."

The commitment of most Americans to these republican values made inevitable the American Revolution, for Britain was increasingly seen as corrupt and hostile to republicanism, and a threat to the established liberties the Americans enjoyed.[6]

Leopold von Ranke 1848 claims that American republicanism played a crucial role in the development of European liberalism,[7]:

By abandoning English constitutionalism and creating a new republic based on the rights of the individual, the North Americans introduced a new force in the world. Ideas spread most rapidly when they have found adequate concrete expression. Thus republicanism entered our Romanic/Germanic world.... Up to this point, the conviction had prevailed in Europe that monarchy best served the interests of the nation. Now the idea spread that the nation should govern itself. But only after a state had actually been formed on the basis of the theory of representation did the full significance of this idea become clear. All later revolutionary movements have this same goal…. This was the complete reversal of a principle. Until then, a king who ruled by the grace of God had been the center around which everything turned. Now the idea emerged that power should come from below.... These two principles are like two opposite poles, and it is the conflict between them that determines the course of the modern world. In Europe the conflict between them had not yet taken on concrete form; with the French Revolution it did.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Some believe that the famous phrase is based on the writings of English philosopher John Locke, who expressed that "no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions."[8] Others believe that the phrase comes from Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. See the Introduction, Section 2, of the Nature of Laws in General.

William Wollaston's 1722 book The Religion of Nature Delineated describes the "truest definition" of "natural religion" as being "The pursuit of happiness by the practice of reason and truth."[9]

The first and second article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights adopted unanimously by the Virginia Convention of Delegates on June 12, 1776 and written by George Mason, is:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Benjamin Franklin was in agreement with Thomas Jefferson in downplaying protection of "property" as a goal of government, replacing the idea with "happiness."[10] The United States Declaration of Independence, which was primarily written by Jefferson, was adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. The text of the second section of the Declaration of Independence reads:

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.


Thomas Paine

Both the Moderate Enlightenment and a Radical or Revolutionary Enlightenment were reactions against the authoritarianism, irrationality and obscurantism of the established churches. Christianity was depicted as a tool of tyrants and oppressors and as being used to defend monarchism, it was seen as hostile to the development of reason and the progress of science and incapable of verification. Whilst the Radical or Revolutionary Enlightenment thinkers, such as Diderot and d'Holbach, advocated atheism the philosophers of the Moderate Enlightenment preferred Deism – which they saw as a resolution of the conflict between religion and science. Jonathan Israel argues that both strands of thought can be traced back to the thought of Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) and his work Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, which is a critique of the literal truth of the Bible and traditional Christian concepts of the nature of God.

Deism is the philosophical belief in a deity based on reason rather than religious revelation or dogma. It was a popular perception among the philosophes, who adopted deistic attitudes to varying degrees. Deism, in this respect, is very different from atheism, which denies the existence of a deity altogether. Voltaire, for instance, was convinced that the existence of god was a demonstrable fact. The deistic god, however, often bore little resemblance to the God of Christian scripture, which meant that deists were often heavily criticized by the adherents of confessional faiths and could be accused of atheism.

In historiographical terms, it has been quite common to see a close link between deism and atheism. Michael Buckley[11] critiques Peter Gay's[12] view of the direct tie between deism and atheism, writing, "the vectors which Gay charts are certainly there, but the distinction may be somewhat too neat, too overdrawn."[13] Louis Dupré describes the deism as "the result of a filtering process that had strained off all historical and dogmatic data from Christian theology and retained only that minimum which, by eighteenth-century standards, reason demands."[14] Atheism is perhaps the same process taken a step further. Buckley credits the rise of atheism with the gradual submission of theology to philosophy—as thinkers, including church leaders, began to argue religion on philosophical terms, they opened the way for disbelief—they made atheism thinkable. Deism is, in this perspective, a complicated waypoint on the path to atheism: deism is the philosophical belief in a deity based on reason. Once belief in god is based on reason, it becomes thinkable to reason one's way into disbelief.

The principal link between the Deism of the European Enlightenment and the American Enlightenment is Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason[15], whose views on religion were shared by Thomas Jefferson[16][17][18]. Deism greatly influenced the thought of intellectuals and Founding Fathers, including James Madison, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.

Religious Tolerance

John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration helped provide an intellectual foundation for religious tolerance and the Separation of Church and State in the USA

John Locke (1632–1704), writing A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) in England the aftermath of the European wars of religion, formulated a classic reasoning for religious tolerance. Three arguments are central: (1) Earthly judges, the state in particular, and human beings generally, cannot dependably evaluate the truth-claims of competing religious standpoints; (2) Even if they could, enforcing a single "true religion" would not have the desired effect, because belief cannot be compelled by violence; (3) Coercing religious uniformity would lead to more social disorder than allowing diversity.[19] Unlike Thomas Hobbes, who saw uniformity of religion as the key to a well-functioning civil society, Locke argues that more religious groups actually prevent civil unrest and that civil unrest results from confrontations caused by any magistrate's attempt to prevent different religions from being practiced, rather than tolerating their proliferation. Locke's primary goal is to "distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion." He makes use of extensive argument from analogy to accomplish his goal, and relies on several key points. He wants to persuade the reader that government is instituted to promote external interests, relating to life, liberty, and the general welfare, while the church exists to promote internal interests, i.e., salvation. The two serve separate functions, and so, must be considered to be separate institutions.

Religious liberals, especially Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison, fought for and eventually attained religious freedom for minority denominations, atheists and non-Christian believers. According to the founding fathers, America should be a country where peoples of all faiths, including those who profess no religious belief, could live in peace and mutual benefit. Full religious liberty meant not only freedom of religion, but freedom from religion. James Madison summed up this ideal in his motto: "Conscience is the most sacred of all property." [20]

Separation of Church and State

The separation of church and state is a legal and political principle derived from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ." The modern concept is often credited to the writings of English philosopher John Locke, but the phrase "separation of church and state" is generally traced to an 1802 letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, where Jefferson spoke of the combined effect of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. In the letter it states:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their "legislature" should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

It has since been in several opinions handed down by the United States Supreme Court,[21] though the Court has not always fully embraced the principle.[22][23][24]

See also


  1. ^ See for example, Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (1927) online at [1]
  2. ^ Shalhope (1982)
  3. ^ Isaac Kramnick, Ideological Background," in Jack. P. Greene and J. R. Pole, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (1994) ch 9; Robert E. Shallhope, "Republicanism," ibid ch 70.
  4. ^ Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (1965) online version
  5. ^ Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment p 507
  6. ^ Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967)
  7. ^ quoted in Becker 2002, p. 128
  8. ^ Locke, John (1690). Two Treatises of Government (10th edition). Project Gutenberg. Retrieved January 21, 2009. 
  9. ^ Wollaston, William The Religion of Nature Delineated 1759 ed., p. 90
  10. ^ Franklin, Benjamin (2006). Harry Johnson. ed. Completed Autobiography. Regnery Publishing. pp. 413. ISBN 0895260336. 
  11. ^ Buckley, Michael J. At The Origins of Modern Atheism. London: Yale University Press, 1987
  12. ^ Gay, Peter "The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism" (1995) W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0393313026
  13. ^ Buckley, 37.
  14. ^ Louis Dupré, Religion and the Rise of Modern Culture (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 43
  15. ^ Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason, The Complete Edition World Union of Deists, 2009. ISBN 978-0-939040-35-3
  16. ^ Jayne, Allen. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy and Theology (2000)
  17. ^ Sanford, Charles B. The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson (1987) University of Virginia Press, ISBN 0-8139-1131-1
  18. ^ Sheridan, Eugene R. Jefferson and Religion, preface by Martin Marty, (2001) University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 1-882886-08-9
  19. ^ McGrath, Alistair. 1998. Historical Theology, An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. p.214-5.
  20. ^ National Gazette, March 29, 1792
  21. ^ Jefferson's Danbury letter has been cited favorably by the Supreme Court many times. In its 1879 Reynolds v. United States decision the high court said Jefferson's observations 'may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment.' In the court's 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, 'In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.' It is only in recent times that separation has come under attack by judges in the federal court system who oppose separation of church and state (Why The Religious Right is Wrong About Separation of Church & State, Robert Boston, Prometheus, Buffalo, New York, 1993, p. 221).
  22. ^ See Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 673 (1984) (“The concept of a ‘wall’ of separation is a useful figure of speech probably deriving from views of Thomas Jefferson. . . . [b]ut the metaphor itself is not a wholly accurate description of the practical aspects of the relationship that in fact exists between church and state.”)[2]
  23. ^ Committee for Public Education & Religious Liberty v. Nyquist, 413 U.S. 756, 760 (1973) (“Yet, despite Madison’s admonition and the ‘sweep of the absolute prohibitions’ of the Clauses, this Nation's history has not been one of entirely sanitized separation between Church and State. It has never been thought either possible or desirable to enforce a regime of total separation.”)[3]
  24. ^ Patrick M. Garry, The Myth of Separation: America’s Historical Experience with Church and State, 33 Hofstra L. Rev. 475, 486 (2004) (noting that “the strict separationist view was wholly rejected by every justice on the Marshall and Taney courts.”)[4]

Primary sources

  • Franklin, Benjamin "Essays of Benjamin Franklin: Moral, Social and Scientific" (2001) University Press of the Pacific, ISBN 0898751624
  • The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (2006) Dover Publications paperback: ISBN 0-486-44921-1
  • The Jefferson Bible, (2006) Applewood Books hardcover: ISBN 1-55709-184-6
  • The Jefferson Bible, introduction by Cyrus Adler, (2005) paperback: ISBN 1-4209-2492-3
  • The Jefferson Bible, introduction by Percival Everett, (2004) Akashic Books paperback: ISBN 1-888451-62-9
  • The Jefferson Bible, (2001) Beacon Press hardcover: ISBN 0-8070-7714-3
  • The Jefferson Bible, introduction by M.A. Sotelo, (2004) Promotional Sales Books, LLC paperback
  • Jefferson’s “Bible:” The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, introduction by Judd W. Patton, (1997) American Book Distributors paperback: ISBN 0-929205-02-2
  • Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason, The Complete Edition World Union of Deists, 2009. ISBN 978-0-939040-35-3
  • Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. Ed. Philip Sheldon Foner. New York: Citadel Press, 1974. ISBN 0806505494.
  • Paine, Thomas. Thomas Paine: Collected Writings. Ed. Eric Foner. Library of America, 1995. ISBN 1883011035.
  • Paine, Thomas. Common Sense" (1982) Penguin Classics, ISBN 0140390162
  • Paine, Thomas. The Life and Major Writings of Thomas Paine. Ed. Philip S. Foner. Replica Books, 2000. ISBN 0735100772.
  • Paine, Thomas. The Thomas Paine Reader. Eds. Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. ISBN 0140444963.
  • Paine, Thomas (Foner, Eric, editor), 1993. Writings. Library of America. Authoritative and scholarly edition containing Common Sense, the essays comprising the American Crisis series, Rights of Man, The Age of Reason, Agrarian Justice, and selected briefer writings, with authoritative texts and careful annotation.
  • Paine, Thomas (Foner, Philip S., editor), 1944. The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2 volumes. Citadel Press.
  • Smith, James Morton, ed. The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776–1826, 3 vols. (1995)


  • Aldridge, A. Owen, (1959). Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine. Lippincott.
  • Cunningham, Noble E. In Pursuit of Reason (1988) well-reviewed short biography of Jefferson.
  • Thomas Jefferson, Political Writings ed by Joyce Appleby and Terence Ball. Cambridge University Press. 1999 online
  • Weinberger, Jerry "Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought" (2008) University Press of Kansas, ISBN 0700615849

Academic studies

  • Bailyn, Bernard "The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution" (1992) Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674443020
  • Cassirer, Ernst Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932), English translation 1951
  • Ferguson, Robert A. "The American Enlightenment, 1750–1820" (1997) Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674023226
  • Gay, Peter "The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism" (1995) W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0393313026
  • Gay, Peter "The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom" (1996) W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0393313662
  • Israel, Jonathan "A Revolution of the Mind – Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy" (2009) Princeton University Press, ISBN 0691142009
  • Jayne, Allen. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy and Theology (2000); traces TJ's sources and emphasizes his incorporation of Deist theology into the Declaration.
  • May, Henry F. "The Enlightenment in America" (1978) Oxford University Press, USA, ISBN 0195023676
  • Richard, C.J. "Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome and the American Enlightenment" (1995) Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674314263
  • Sanford, Charles B. The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson (1987) University of Virginia Press, ISBN 0-8139-1131-1
  • Sheridan, Eugene R. Jefferson and Religion, preface by Martin Marty, (2001) University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 1-882886-08-9
  • Staloff, Darren. Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding. (2005)
  • Wood, Gordon S. "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" (1993) Vintage, ISBN 0679736883


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