American Enlightenment

American Enlightenment

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 and society. There was a shift from God-centered thinking to human being centered. Instead of going through life unhappy and thinking they had to suffer so they could enjoy the afterlife - people began to think about what they could accomplish on earth.


The American Enlightenment began during the 1690s but didn’t become fully realized until the 1730s. The origins of the American Enlightenment are predominantly European. However Puritan culture also contributed to the prominence of the Enlightenment in America. Small Puritan religious colleges were one of the few places where philosophy was discussed prior to the Enlightenment. During the American Enlightenment these colleges rapidly expanded and became the breeding grounds for the Enlightenment thinkers."Philosophy from Puritanism to the Enlightenment." Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.]

Throughout the colonies "Enlightened" individuals focused on classical writings for inspiration. The American Enlightenment was categorized not only by knowledge of classical writings but also an atmosphere where people craved new knowledge and wisdom. It was that craving that inspired people to make new developments in science, religion, and politics."The Enlightenment." Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.]

There was a large emphasis during the Enlightenment for new scientific developments. One of the easiest ways America participated in the scientific community was by exploring the colonies. During expeditions through unknown territories explorers kept very detailed journals noting any discovery of new plant or animal life. Dr. Michael Sarrazin was an example of an explorer whose scientific journals largely contributed to the scientific community. Dr. Sarrazin took expeditions to document any plant or animal life previously unknown in Europe. He then sent his journals and plant specimens to Europe where they were studied at Oxford University and The Academy of Sciences. The largest contribution to scientific community came from Benjamin Franklin’s works on electricity. Franklin was convinced that new scientific discoveries like electricity should be put to use for the improvement of human life.

Although the Enlightenment’s effect on religion is often overlooked, it was evident in America. John Wise, a Puritan clergyman, supported Plutarch’s claim that "to follow God and obey Reason is the same thing." [ [ Google Book Search] Puritan Political Ideas, 1558-1794. Morgan, Edmund Sears. Page 255. Indianapolis : Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.] Wise began to preach these ideals and immediately received praise from other enlightened thinkers. Wise’s “religion of reason” became very popular especially in the Calvinist and Anglican congregations in the colonies but found serious opposition when received by more orthodox communities. Wise’s “religion of reason” has a left a lasting mark on many mainstream Protestant Christian denominations today.

Probably the most influential aspects of the American Enlightenment were political developments. It is without doubt that the ideas of the American Enlightenment led to America's independence and the principles of the held within the US Constitution. Through enlightenment ideals people began to think that a ruler had to be held to higher laws. American political minds like Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Madison were able to take the ideas of John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith to create a government whose power was obtained from the people. The founding fathers wrote the United States Constitution with a mind to realizing Enlightenment ideals, and the "Federalist Papers" relied on Enlightenment philosophy to defend that Constitution. The United States Bill of Rights is also a fundamentally Enlightenment document.

The Enlightenment ideas are Popular Sovereignty, Liberty and Natural rights which formed the basis of American's desire for greater self autonomy. The American Revolution as seen by Bailyn was an ideological revolution as it instilled in the colonists the need to take up arms against Britain in the American Revolutionary War of Independence and subsequently led to separation from Britain and first development of nationalism of the United States of America.


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