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The ideas propagated during the American Enlightenment were essential to the founding of America, and they became foundations of the United States' system of government, as enshrined in the Constitution. 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 stakeholders in America at the time led to the emerging movement, which has found modern-day application. The aim of this philosophy paper is to investigate the concepts that underpin the American Enlightenment and to examine the contributions of the Enlightenment's forefathers to the United States Constitution. This essay also examines how the fundamental concepts of American Enlightenment apply in America today.
Reasons for need of American Enlightenment
Every idea is a by-product of another idea or precept. The original ideas or reasons that necessitated the need for Enlightenment are progressive and ever-changing under the pressure of new developments. First, people were seeking enlightenment due to a perceived oppression caused by the norm and society outgrowing old ways of thinking. For example, Alignment in the progressive era was to a large extent caused by a revolution from the British colonial rule (Robert, 2). An illiterate population and blind obedience to authority are the leading causes of authoritarian rule and unjust oppression of men by fellow men. Secondly, renewed awareness pushes out old ways of thinking and ushers in living under a new light. For instance, in modern America, government and industry players have found that racial discrimination affects productivity in industries as opposed to applying the strengths of each race for the betterment of America. Thirdly, the acquisition of new knowledge and new modes of reasoning raises questions that ultimately lead to change, and in the case of the progressive era, the change was American Enlightenment (Robert, 14). A burst in scientific, religious and philosophical knowledge challenges some formerly accepted ways of thinking. For example, as scholars and scientists gained more awareness through research, they questioned the existence of divine power as the force behind nature (O’Hara, Chapter 7). In modern enlightenment, the presence of divine intervention is challenged by explanations of disasters, incurables diseases, modifying the original laws of nature, e.g., love acceptable between a man and a woman only, etc. Fourthly, almost all developments in any era come from a new breed of thinkers in various topics. A generation of young leaders in America challenged the organization of the American society, government, churches, and belief in God. The vigor of the younger generation in the population determines the direction of a nation. For instance, while young leaders in Enlighment era opposed the concepts of Kingdoms and authoritarian churches, the current young generation uses mass action and the power of platforms like social media to agitate for desired changes (Robert, 10).
How Pioneers of American Enlightenment Contributed to the United States Constitution
One of the key highlights of American Enlightenment is the birth of the United States Constitution and enlightenment ideas of various philosophers, thinkers and scholars, which are written all over the document (Robert, 18). The purpose of the Constitution was to incorporate enlightenment ideas to establish a written foundation upon which successive governments would run the country. The following are the key pioneers of the Enlightenment thinking and their unique contribution to the constitution as the principle document of American Enlightenment.
Franklin was an author, a scientist, a statesman, and one of the key figures who contributed to the founding of America. Franklin was one of the delegates of the Constitutional Convention presided by George Washington in Philadelphia. One of the most important ideas of Enlightenment was the decentralization of resources such as power, and thus the reason why philosophers sought to change the status quo. In the convention, Franklin stressed on power devolution saying that executive power should not be in the hands of a single individual ("Citizen Ben"). On the other hand, Alexander Hamilton preferred a single executive appointed over a lifetime. The current United States Constitution grants executive power to a single individual over a period of four years. Thus, there is a hybrid of ideas of both Franklin and Hamilton. However, as vocal and influential as he was, Franklin saw his idea of a unicameral legislature rejected by other members of the convention ("Citizen Ben"). In retrospect, the preference of a bicameral legislature was against the ideas of British rule, which has a unicameral legislature, which America was opposed to in the first place.
Jefferson was a Virginia statesman, scientist, and diplomat who drafted the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson subscribed to the idea of “self-interest” as a pillar of enlightenment, and, therefore, worked with Franklin to substitute “pursuit of happiness” for “property” in the initial draft of the constitution. Enlightenment is also about giving people freedom and allowing them to make and have their choices. Curtailing the rights of individuals is viewed as the enemy of progress since people in bondage are not as productive as those who are free. It is on the premise of Freedom that Jefferson wrote the Bill of Rights that gives every American freedom (NCC Staff).
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”.
The fact that Madison drafted a constitution plan eleven years before the Constitutional Convention shows that Enlightenment was looming, whether attained by the old generation or the young leaders like Madison. Madison’s initial draft, the Virginia Plan, formed the basis for the formation of the final document in Philadelphia. Enlightenment comes through concerted efforts of people of different disciplines with similar interests. For example, Thomas Jefferson was Madison’s mentor, and Madison was the link between the convention and Jefferson, who was in Paris during the declaration (NCC Staff).
How Key Concepts of American Enlighment apply in America Today
Deism refers to the philosophical belief of the existence of God. One of the motivations behind revolutionary enlightenment and moderate knowledge was the backlash to the authoritarian system of religion such as organized Christianity. According to Franklin, Jefferson and later George Washington, religious dogma is a barrier to the full attainment of the knowledge of the universal law, and, by extension, a hindrance to American enlightenment (O’Hara, Chapter 5). Therefore, Deism based on a belief in God was the alternative idea to authoritarian religious rule. The concept of Deism is evident today through the recognition of God in the National Anthem, prayers in school systems and the establishment of evangelical churches across the nation that do not subscribe to any of the known religious outfits such a Catholic, Protestants, Judaism or Baptist. In Modern America, there are rallying calls for the country to re-establish itself as a nation under the control of God due to the increasing number of atheist citizens. A section of the population still believes in the Enlightenment ideology of Thomas Jefferson when he stated that “the longer I live, the more convincing proof I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men” (Ralston). The inspiration of Deism is 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 opposes a hereditary means of choosing leaders, such as a Kingdom or a monarch, and supports for the running of a nation as a republic where the people choose leaders through an election. The first installment 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 American electorate gets the opportunity to choose new leaders every four years as a way to continue the legacy of the founding fathers and to confirm to the world that the United States are a Republic. Other influences of republicanism in modern America are the advancement of voting rights for women and minority groups, and the rise of democratism. The founders outlined the values of Republicans as a responsible civic duty, patriotism, good citizenship and property-based personality (O’Hara, Chapter 2).
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 hence the will of the citizenry should prevail. Liberal thought is opposed to monarchism and supports 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. (O’Hara, Chapter 2). Faithful to the National Anthem, the US is the “land of the free”, since people’s rights are well protected in the Constitution. Freedom in America has resulted to individualism, where self-interest comes before collective well-being. A positive influence of liberalism is the worldwide phenomenon that America is the one country on earth where individuals have the freedom, liberty, and resources to actualize their dreams without hindrances (O’Hara, Chapter 5).
Conservatism was an active feature of American Enlightenment thinking propagated by James Madison. Conservative thinking calls for the preservation of the nation by staying faithful to the foundational principles of governance, religion and even education (O’Hara, Chapter 5). Therefore, the American constitution is one of the few in the world that has minimal amendments, as citizens are satisfied with the foundational laws of the land. Conservatism is vital for political stability in America, unlike in other developing nations that are regularly rocked by political tension for lack of a firm rule of law. Modern conservatism is evident in national issues, such as the gun control debate, where Republicans and conservative citizens fight for the right to carry and bear arms.
Innovation is the path to revolutionize a nation and lead the people to true enlightenment. The scientific inventions of the Enlightenment era are still beneficial today the world over. For example, Franklin came up with useful inventions and theoretical work on laws of electricity, making him one of the most popular American scientists. The first inventions during the rise from the Dark Age are the foundation for the current innovations, such as the boom in technology, the conquer of extraterrestrial space and numerous advances in science (O’Hara, Chapter 7).
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. The freedom of minority religious grouping in the US today is as a result of ideas of tolerance by Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington (Ralston). Madison summarized the idea of tolerance by saying "Conscience is the most sacred of all property" (Ralston). The public school system and the labor market run on the foundation of understanding. A look at the current US racial relations shows a vast improvement in tolerance levels as most races now have equal rights to vote, opportunities and liberty. While there are still traces of racism, considerable progress has been made to foster peaceful co-existence.
The ideas propagated during the American Enlightened period were crucial to the formation of America, and are pillars of the United States system of governance through the Constitution. The founders reshaped the themes of European enlightenment to fit in an American context, and developed a structure of governance that was unique to their visionary America. The concepts of Deism, republicanism, liberalism, conservatism, religious tolerance and scientific progress have seen applicability in the modern United States.
"Citizen Ben". Pbs.org. N.p., 2002. Web. 23 June 2017.
NCC Staff. "A Quick Look At Thomas Jefferson’S ConstitutionalLegacy". constitutioncenter.org. N.p., 2015. Web. 23 June 2017.
O'Hara, Kieron. The Enlightenment: A Beginner's Guide. Oneworld Publications, 2012. 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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