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The American Enlightenment: Intellectual and Social Revolution

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  1. 0:10 Dark Ages
  2. 1:04 Renaissance & Reformation
  3. 2:10 Age of Reason
  4. 3:16 Enlightened Government
  5. 4:06 American Enlightenment
  6. 7:19 Enlightenment's Legacy
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Taught by

Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

For a thousand years, Europe had been living in the Dark Ages until a series of philosophical, religious and scientific movements helped turn on the lights. The Enlightenment began in Europe, but quickly spread throughout America in the 1700s and helped set the stage for a revolution against British rule.

The Dark Ages

Major events leading to the Age of Reason
European Enlightenment Timeline

Since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, Europe's mostly illiterate population had been guided by superstition, fear of an angry God and ignorant obedience to authorities who may or may not have their subjects' best interests at heart. Unable to read the scriptures or the law for themselves, their only option was to obey or not obey - and challenging the authority of the king or the church often resulted in a slow and painful death. A thousand years later, that finally began to change.

A series of intellectual and spiritual movements prompted some individuals to suggest that humans had been living in the Dark Ages. A renewed awareness of old knowledge, combined with developments in science, theology and philosophy, helped turn on the lights, so to speak. This movement, spanning the 18th century, is known today as the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason.

The Renaissance, Scientific Revolution and Reformation

First, the Renaissance reawakened knowledge of science, art and culture that had been lost during the Middle Ages and began to shift the focus of these disciplines to humans rather than the divine. Higher rates of literacy then ushered in the Scientific Revolution, and human knowledge increased rapidly, laying the foundation for a scientific, rather than religious, world view.

At the time, it was controversial to explain the natural world in a way that didn't involve any spiritual force. Galileo, for example, was imprisoned for the rest of his life after announcing that the Earth revolves around the Sun, because religious authorities said he was challenging scripture. Galileo was a religious man and didn't intend to undermine the Bible. But gradually, all of this new scientific knowledge did lead a lot of people to question some of the traditional teachings of their churches.

Martin Luther went so far as to say the established church was interpreting the Bible incorrectly. His protest led to the Protestant Reformation and broke the monopoly of power held by the Catholic Church.

The actions of Martin Luther instigated the Protestant Reformation
Martin Luther Image

The Age of Reason

People began to wonder that if the church had been wrong about the natural world or even the Bible, maybe it could be wrong about other things, too. The Age of Reason gave rise to a completely new way of thinking. Instead of trying to understand how God orchestrated everything in their lives, people started to consider how they might shape the world around them. The result was a new emphasis on scientific discovery and a boom in higher education. Reading someone else's experiment wasn't as good as conducting your own. Accepting what you'd been taught by others wasn't as good as challenging and modifying their assumptions. This was especially true of the relationship between people and the institutions in authority over them.

During the Middle Ages, Europeans were taught that God had orchestrated events to put their monarchs in charge. Who were you to question their divine right? But then England was plagued by political turmoil, and a series of failed governments in the 1600s disrupted the English monarchy, prompting Enlightenment thinkers to consider how their philosophy might apply to government.

Enlightened Ideas of Government

In 1689, an Englishman named John Locke published an anonymous essay titled Two Treatises of Government. In the first treatise, Locke argued that no monarchy had a divine right to exist; kings held power by the luck of their birth. Locke's second treatise, stating that governments should only exist by the consent of the governed, was more influential in America. As you might imagine, Locke's ideas were unpopular with the people who held power in England, and he never acknowledged that he was the author of the Two Treatises.

Benjamin Franklin was a major figure during the American Enlightenment
Benjamin Franklin Photo

Other Europeans contributed enlightened ideas of government, as well. The Baron de Montesquieu proposed that society might benefit from a separation of government powers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau went so far as to suggest that society should be ruled by the 'general will' of the people, essentially advocating for direct democracy.

The American Enlightenment

The Enlightenment reached the colonies through the port cities. At first, such philosophy circulated only among the educated elite. Then, Benjamin Franklin, arguably the single most important figure of the Enlightenment in America, printed inexpensive pamphlets and newspapers to spread the ideas quickly. He published Poor Richard's Almanack to entertain the colonists and instill Enlightenment values in them. While Europeans considered, discussed and sifted through these ideas for a century, Americans put them into practice.

Free from the kind of entrenched power that had dominated Europe for centuries, a generation of young American leaders was absolutely willing to question not only the role of the king, but the churches and even God Himself. A theology, known as rational Christianity, emerged. It taught that God gave humans the ability to reason, allowing them to understand and follow moral teachings, regardless of which religious group they belonged to. Religious tolerance became even more widespread.

Many Americans moved toward Deism, a philosophical belief in a deity based on reason rather than faith. In Deism, God is sometimes compared to a watchmaker who makes a watch, winds it up and then leaves its maintenance to the person who owns it. Deists believed that God created the world and set natural laws into motion and then his work was done. It is up to humans to keep the world running. Deists do not believe that God supernaturally intervenes in the world or human events. Some of the founding fathers, like Thomas Jefferson, were Deists. Many others were strongly influenced by Deism, even if they didn't claim to follow it.

Though a few Enlightenment thinkers discarded religion altogether, most tried to reconcile their belief in God with science and philosophy. One important result was the belief in human rights - that if God created the world with laws that governed it, then He must have also established such natural laws for the humans He created. Americans began to believe that the intended role of government was to protect these God-given rights.

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