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America and the Enlightenment: Influences on the American Revolution and Constitution

By Edited Dec 15, 2015 0 0

The American Revolution and establishment of a Constitutional democracy can be seen as the culmination and end product of the Enlightenment. The main ideas and philosophies prevalent in enlightenment thought can be seen in the literature and published writings leading up to the American Revolution and enlightenment political ideas seen within the American Constitution. Kant, when he wrote “What is Enlightenment,” said that they were not living in an enlightened age, but an age of enlightenment. Though Kant’s enlightenment vision may never truly come to complete realization, the American constitution and the political system that it established is the closest and greatest example of the ideal enlightened world that he envisioned.

The American Constitution reflects many of the philosophies from the enlightenment period. The idea of the constitution itself can be seen as springing from the enlightenment as it is similar to a “social contract.” The constitution is a coming together of the people to form a contract that is outside of them that they must obey as the supreme law. We see this idea in Rousseau’s The Social Contract. Rousseau writes: “The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.” (Rousseau (Kramnick p. 432)). Rousseau goes on in the social contract to describe a system where the government protects the rights and equality of everyone, not the just the elite. If the government does not protect the rights of all people, they have broken the social contract. These theories heavily influenced the American Revolution and the creation of the constitution, which is a statement of rights liberties of the governed (a social contract).

John Locke’s enlightenment thoughts can be seen clearly in the preamble of the constitution and in the declaration of independence. The constitution starts: “We the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” (US Const., Preamble) The preamble 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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” (Declaration Ind., preamble) We can derive from both of these documents heavy influences from Locke and Rousseau. Locke’s main themes in his writing were the inherent “unalienable” rights of man. He was a champion of natural law theory. If a systems derived by people go against this natural law, then it must be abolished since it also goes against reason and mankind itself. Locke says: “Thus the law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make for other men’s actions must, as well as their own, and other men’s actions be conformable to the law of nature, i.e. to the will of God, of which that is a declaration, and the fundamental law of nature being the preservation of mankind, no human sanction can be good or valid against it.” (Locke (Kramnick p.404)) Locke, by adhering to natural law (even giving reference to God in this respect), teaches that any real laws must be derived from something higher than itself. If this weren’t true, it would be tough to argue why people have “inalienable” rights. This can only be true if we adhere to the fact that we are endowed with rights just by being. Both the constitution and the declaration of independence state this, and unless these truths are recognized, the rights of people will always be violated. A case-in-point to drive home this theory of adhering to a higher law can be seen in the landmark Marbury v Madison case ruling. Justice Marshall states: “…the constitution, and not such ordinary act, must govern the case to which they both apply. Those then who controvert the principle that the constitution is to be considered, in court, as a paramount law, are reduced to the necessity of maintaining that courts must close their eyes on the constitution and see only the law. This doctrine would subvert the very foundation of all written constitutions.” (Marbury v Madison 5 US 137, 2 L.ED) Justice Marshall, in defending judicial review, tells us how detrimental it is to close our eyes to the paramount law of the constitution. It renders the very constitution useless to do so, and completely goes against reason. This parallels what John Locke is telling us about natural law and how a governing body should be assembled, and what it should do. Lock and Marshall are telling us justice can only be a reality by adhering to a higher law that all must oblige. The governments and rulers up to the time of the enlightenment only adhered to their own whims and fancies. This is what the enlightenment set out to refute. This type of government is also what the colonies refuted. Britain became the example of tyranny and law making according to whim, not natural law. The result of the influence is seen in the American Revolution (the fight, opposition), the Declaration of Independence (the recognition of the wrongdoing), and the constitution (the end result, formation of an enlightened nation).

Finally, the separation of powers was mainly influence by the writings of Baron de Montesquieu. In his book The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu explains the three branch government, which has checks and balances that prevent one branch, or the government itself, from getting too powerful. Each branch keeps the other branch in check. Obviously, this is exactly how the constitution framers laid out our government.

The American Revolution and the Constitution are realizations of the philosophies of the enlightenment. The revolution overthrew the despotic government (and the theories that supported it) and established a government based on enlightened thinking. The result shows that enlightenment thinking, philosophies built upon reason, won out in the end. A governmental system that the world had never seen to that point was established, a free democratic country was created. Though nothing will ever be perfect, the foundation that the enlightenment philosophies provided culminated in a great, free, super-power society.



-The United States Constitution

-Marbury v Madison, 5 US 137, 2 L.ED

The following documents were cited from: The Enlightenment Portable Reader, Edited by Isaac Kramnick, Penguin Books, 1995.

-Kant, Immanual, What is Enlightenment. 1784

-Rousseau, The Social Contract. 1762

-Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government. 1680.





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