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The American Enlightenment was a time of cultural reform in America that was ushered in by philosophical thinkers who applied ideas that marked the beginning of new ways of thought. The American Enlightenment was an era in which new ideas were introduced into the American way of life, ultimately leading to the American Revolution and the establishment of the United States of America. Various players in the United States at the time led to the emerging movement, which has since found application in modern society. The aim of this research paper is to look into the origins of the American Enlightenment, as well as the founders of Enlightenment philosophy and the basic principles of the American Enlightenment. Background of American Enlightenment
The term “American Enlightenment” came about after the second world war but the British referred to the era as the period of being “enlightened.” Philosophers have disagreed over the exact dates of the American Enlightenment (enlightenment), but most agree that it occurred in the 18th century most likely in the period between 1714 and 1818 (Winterer). Enlightenment first happened in British North America and was sourced from Europe primarily from the British and the French. There was extensive trade between America and Europe in commodities such as cotton, and they exchanged books on European literature. English writers such as Sir William Blackstone, James Harrington, Viscount Bolingbroke and Algernon Sidney influence enlightenment in America through commentaries about the laws of the British Empire that the Founding Fathers of the United States used to develop Anglo-American common law (Winterer).
The liberal Scottish society also influenced the Americans. Scottish writers such as Francis Hutcheson and David Humes wrote essays, with the Humes shaping American thinkers like James Madison as well as the constitution through his work “The History of England.” The French sources of that influenced American Enlightenment were Emer de Vattel's Law of Nations and Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws where the founders sought ideas on governance and the Constitution (Winterer).
Pioneers of American Enlightenment
The representatives of the new ideology of enlightenment were people from all disciplines of study. The most vocal ones were college presidents, including religious leaders and moral philosophers of the Anglican Church (Robert). There were also political thinkers, polymaths, scientists, astronomers and historical writers. The American Enlightenment applied to politics, science, religion, religious tolerance, literature, the arts and music due to the mixture of founders from various disciplines (Robert). However, four main American thinkers brought about ideas in their fields of specialization that were the most widely applicable to the development of a new nation. The study will focus on each personality and examine their contribution and how it complemented the individual ideas of others and by extension how the ideas fit in the overall ideology of enlightenment.
Franklin was an author, a scientist and a statesman and one of the key figures who contributed to the founding of America. Franklin broadened the enlightenment ideology by promoting what he referred to as “enlightened self-interest.” The following are the concepts of enlightened self-interest. Firstly, Franklin believed that a person attains true enlightenment when the pursuit of wealth coincides with philanthropy and voluntarism to promote the public good. Secondly, Franklin thought that the way to achieve enlightenment is by moral perfection as guided by thirteen virtues namely temperance, silence, frugality, industry, sincerity, moderation, justice, cleanliness, tranquility, order, resolution chastity, and humility. Thirdly, Franklin preferred voluntary associations over government institutions as a path to enlightenment. For example, Franklin thought that “independent entrepreneurs make good citizens” since they set “attainable goals” and are “capable of living a useful and dignified life.” (Ralston).
Jefferson was a Virginia statesman, scientist, and diplomat who drafted the declaration of independence. Some of the roles of Jefferson in the enlightenment of America are, firstly, he worked with Franklin to substitute “pursuit of happiness” for “property.” Secondly, Jefferson extended correspondence with the creators of the constitution and therefore, had a due influence on the initial draft. Thirdly, Jefferson believed that enlightenment was about the progress of the human mind and the American laws and Constitution has to represent that progress and keep up with the developments of people and institutions (Ralston).
Madison was a politician, an author of letters, a diplomat and an architect who advocated for the ratification of the Constitution and therefore became known as the “Father of the Constitution.” Madison was of the opinion that factions or interest groups were dangerous to the enlightenment of society since factions destroy the liberty of which people form a republican government. Madison further said that factions could exist if there were a clear system of checks and balances so as to avert any harm to the enlightenment of America and her people (Ralston).
Adams was a founder, a statesman, a diplomat and eventually a president who contributed to the thought of American Enlightenment through the propagation of themes such as republicanism and conservatism. For example, to defend Republicanism, Adams disputed the idea of a unified and centralized government and instead supported a separation of government powers and keeping government accountable through checks and balances. To support conservatism as essential for enlightenment, Adams argued that pure democracy leads to passionate tendencies of some individuals to increase their power at the expense of others (Robert).
Key Concepts of American Enlighment
Deism refers to the philosophical belief of the existence of God. One of the motivations behind revolutionary enlightenment and moderate enlightenment was the backlash to the authoritarian system of religion such as organized Christianity. According to Franklin, Jefferson, Adams and later George Washington, religious dogma were a barrier to the full attainment of the knowledge of the universal law and by extension a hindrance to American enlightenment. Therefore, they introduced Deism as an alternative, and based their belief in God is on reason. For example, during the Constitution Convention, Thomas Jefferson stated that “the longer I live, the more convincing proof I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men.” The inspiration of Deism was a disdain for the rules and blind obedience that characterized religious organizations such as the Catholic Church, at the time (Ralston).
Republicanism was the idea that opposed a hereditary means of choosing leaders and proposed for the running of America as a republic where the people choose leaders through an election. The founders outlined the values of Republicans as a responsible civic duty, patriotism, good citizenship and property-based personality. The highlight of republicanism was the election of George Washington into the highest office in the land and conferring him the title of president instead of a royal title (Ralston). The republican ideology was a crucial pillar of enlightenment and is still influential in the US today.
Liberalism was central to the Enlightenment thinking, and it is the notion that individuals have natural rights and the powers of government are not absolute, but the will of the citizenry should prevail. Liberal thought opposed monarchism and supported the creation of a parliamentarian system of government as the way to protect individual freedoms such as freedom of movement and free speech, right to petition the government, etc. Liberalism was represented by Jefferson in the drafting of the declaration of independence and later when the constitution was amended to include the US Bill of Rights (Ralston).
Conservatism was an active feature of American Enlightenment thinking. The American Revolution was conservative in that while the founding fathers disposed of the British colonial misrule, they changed and readapted British Enlightenment ideas to suit the American environment. Enlightenment thinker James Madison was opposed to the regular appeals and amending of laws claiming such actions undermined political stability (Ralston).
Deists engaged in scientific discovery in the revolution era as a way to satisfy their mental curiosity and expose the natural laws of God. For example, Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in the creation of the American Philosophical Society. Franklin came up with useful inventions and theoretical work on laws of electricity which made him one of the most famous American scientists. According to Franklin and the other enlightened thinkers, innovation was the path to revolutionize America and lead the people to true enlightenment. The scientific inventions of the Enlightenment era are still beneficial today the world over (Ralston).
Toleration was an American Enlightenment theme that advocated for friendly and peaceful co-existence of people of all races, faith, and affiliations for mutual benefit. For example, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington fought for the minority religious groupings as a way to protect the freedom of conscience. Madison summarized the idea of tolerance by saying "Conscience is the most sacred of all property." (Winterer) The founding fathers created friendly institutions such as public schools and the Presbyterian church as a way to enlighten society by bringing people together (Robert).
The American Enlightenment was a period of intellectual change pioneered by philosophical thinkers who applied ideas that punctuated new ways of thinking in America. The idea of enlightenment may not have originated in America, but the founders reshaped the themes of European enlightenment to fit in an American context. Guided by the concepts of Deism, republicanism, liberalism, conservatism, religious tolerance and scientific progress, the American Enlightenment thinkers put a firm foundation for all other ideologies that have come up in America for the last 300 years.
Winterer, Caroline. American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness In The Age Of Reason. 1stEd. Yale University, 2016. Print.
Ralston, Shane J. "American Enlightenment Thought". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.N.p., 2011. Web. 4 June 2017.
Robert, Ferguson A. The American Enlightenment 1750–1820. 1st ed. Harvard University Press,1994. Print.
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