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American Enlightenment

American Enlightenment

A letter dated October 1, 1752, began:

A frequent mention is made in the public papers from Europe, of the success of the Philadelphia experiment, for drawing the electric fire from clouds by means of pointed rods of iron erected on high buildings,"1

It proceeded to describe a curious scientific experiment involving a kite and a thunderstorm:

When the rain has wet the kite and twine, so that it can conduct the electric fire freely, you will find it stream out plentifully from the key on the approach of your knuckle. At this key the phial may be charged; and from electric fire thus obtained, Spirits may be kindled, and all the other electric experiments be performed, which are usually done by the help of a rubbed glass globe or tube; and thereby the sameness of the electric matter with that of lightning completely demonstrated."2

Its author was Benjamin Franklin, one of America's Founding Fathers, and a key figure in the American Enlightenment (1714-1815). The latter was an important intellectual period that focused on the ideas of rationalism, individualism, religious tolerance, social progress, and the development of natural sciences.

The American Enlightenment, Fig. 1 - Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, StudySmarter.

Fig. 1 - Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, by Benjamin West, ca. 1816.

American Enlightenment: Summary

American Enlightenment (1714-1815) was an era in American intellectual history. It impacted society, culture, science, religion, and politics. This period was also directly linked to the ideology of classical Liberalism and the American Revolution of 1776. Major Enlightenment figures in the New World included:

  • Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
  • George Washington (1732-1799)
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
  • James Madison (1751-1836)
  • John Adams (1735-1826)
  • Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
  • and others

American Enlightenment was also rooted in its earlier European counterpart. In turn, European Enlightenment influenced the French Revolution of 1789 and its ideals.

These ideals included:

  • religious tolerance
  • rationalism
  • individualism
  • egalitarianism
  • social and scientific progress
  • secularism
  • critique of social institutions

In Europe, Enlightenment thinkers challenged absolutist monarchies, whereas American intellectuals disparaged the institution of aristocracy and reflected upon the European political experience. Both the European and American Enlightenment variants also point to broader trends in modern history:

  1. the development of capitalism as a socioeconomic system
  2. the growth of classical Liberalism (ideology)
  3. the rise of modern representative democracy (political system and form of government)

Did you know?

In Europe, the Enlightenment also contributed to the establishment of nation-states in the 19th century.

American Enlightenment: Dates

Some noteworthy dates for the American Enlightenment are:

DateEvent
1714
  • Jeremiah Dummer’s book donation to Connecticut’s Yale college
  • The American Enlightenment begins
1748-1752
  • Montesquieu releases The Spirit of Laws influencing the Founding Fathers
1752
  • Benjamin Franklin's kite experiment
1769
  • David Rittenhouse documents the transit of Venus
1776
  • American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence
1788
  • The Federalist Papers
1789
  • French Revolution
1820
  • Jefferson Bible
1835
  • Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

Background: European Enlightenment

European Enlightenment impacted the American variant significantly.

The American Enlightenment, Louis XIV at the Royal Academy of Sciences, StudySmarter.

Fig. 2 - Louis XIV Visiting the Royal Academy of Sciences, by Sébastien Leclerc, 1671.

  • In the Old World, Enlightenment (17th-18th centuries) found its intellectual and cultural roots in Renaissance humanism as it replaced the Middle Ages and the powerful influence of the Church.
  • Culturally, European Enlightenment may be divided along language lines as an international movement.
  • French-speaking philosophes included such thinkers as Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Denis Diderot (1713-1784), and Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755).
  • Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn were some of the notable German-speaking intellectuals at this time.
  • English-speaking thinkers from the Scottish tradition included Adam Smith and David Hume.
  • At its height, European Enlightenment borrowed ideas from earlier modern intellectuals, including the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), scientific thinker René Descartes (1596-1650), philosopher John Locke (1632 - 1704), and innovative scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727) among others.

A philosophe is a public intellectual and a man of letters during the Age of Reason—rather than a philosopher per se—engaged with various subjects in the humanities.

Driven by intellectual curiosity and the spirit of rationality, these thinkers analyzed and described the world around them in novel ways. They reevaluated key issues in politics, religion, and science for the purpose of improving society. Many of their works directly impacted the American Enlightenment.

For instance, Montesquieu’s political treatise The Spirit of Laws (1748-1750) became one of the intellectual sources for the Founding Fathers and, later, for Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of American society (Democracy in America, 1835).

Did you know?

European Enlightenment is also called the Age of Reason because of its emphasis on rational thinking.

The Enlightenment in America

Scholars define the period of the American Enlightenment broadly. However, they often point to a specific event—Jeremiah Dummer’s (1681-1739) donation of hundreds of books to Connecticut’s Yale college in 1714. These books subsequently influenced the curriculum in that institution and the thinking of the American historian and philosopher Samuel Johnson (1696-1772). His subsequent role in the field of education—in which he disseminated Enlightenment ideas—made him an important contributor to American Enlightenment.

American Enlightenment: Benjamin Franklin

The Scientific Revolution began in the 16th century with scientists like Nicholas Copernicus. By the 17th century, natural sciences were at the center of the Enlightenment period both in the Old and New Worlds. In Europe, several important scientists operated at this time.

For instance, Isaac Newton’s work in classical mechanics and the law of universal gravitation offered convincing explanations for many events in the natural world.

In colonial America, Benjamin Franklin was equally well known as one of the Founding Fathers as he was as a scientist. His work developed an understanding of electricity although scientists already knew about its existence.

Franklin's 1752 kite experiment analyzing lightning and his invention of the lightning rod are famous examples.

The American Enlightenment, Benjamin Franklin’s The General Magazine, StudySmarter.

Fig. 3 - Benjamin Franklin’s The General Magazine, 1741.

American Enlightenment: Thinkers

There were several essential thinkers linked to the American Enlightenment in addition to Benjamin Franklin.

NameSummary

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

  • American revolutionary and philosopher born in Britain
  • Wrote Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis (1776–1783) arguing for American independence

George Washington (1732-1799)

  • American Founding Father and the first U.S. president
  • Used Enlightenment ideas to gain American independence from Britain

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

  • American Founding Father and the third U.S. president
  • Wrote the Declaration of Independence (1776), as the main author, and The Jefferson Bible (1820)

James Madison (1751-1836)

  • American Founding Father and the fourth president of the U.S.
  • One of the main authors of The Federalist Papers (1788) about the U.S. Constitution

John Adams (1735-1826)

  • American Founding Father and the second U.S. president
  • Wrote the Massachusetts Constitution and Declaration of Rights (1780)

Another Founding Father, Benjamin Rush (1745-1813), was a well-known physician and educator respected at that time. Rush taught many students at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. However, many aspects of his work are considered outdated today—from his emphasis on bloodletting to cure illnesses to his views on race. Rush also made a contribution to the field of psychiatry, since he was one of the first professionals to make an attempt at the classification and analysis of mental illness.

In turn, the scientist David Rittenhouse (1732–1796) made contributions to the fields of astronomy and mathematics. Rittenhouse observed and documented the 1769 transit of Venus. However, the field of science at this time was not limited to the pursuit of knowledge as such. The notion of scientific progress underpinned the necessary improvements that society required.

For instance, physician Cadwallader Colden (1689-1776) developed ideas of urban sanitation by proposing a drainage and sanitation system for the city of New York in order to improve the health and lives of others. Infrastructural development of this kind was also linked to urbanization and the Industrial Revolution.

American Enlightenment: Literature and Political Ideas

European thinkers provided the necessary foundation for American political ideas.

  • In this way, the American Declaration of Independence (1776) borrowed John Locke’s “life, liberty, and estate” and transformed it into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These related notions comprised basic rights in the minds of Enlightenment thinkers. Locke also repudiated the notion of the divine rights of kings and proposed a social model in which the subjects agreed upon their government should the ruler lose popular support. This concept, too, influenced Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.

The American Enlightenment, The Declaration of Independence, StudySmarter.

Fig. 4 - The Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull, 1819.

One of the most important American political thinkers of this period was Thomas Paine because of his impact on the American Revolution. Paine also supported the French Revolution (1789) and its egalitarian ideas. He was an advocate of republicanism. Republicanism, classical Liberalism, anti-corruption, and individualism—rather than the tribal collective—comprised some of the general aspects of American political thought at this time. In addition to Thomas Jefferson, other Founding Fathers such as James Madison and John Adams also developed the idea of republicanism.

For instance, The Federalist Papers, to which James Madison significantly contributed, were a series of political essays promoting the notion of representative democracy.

American thinkers also had the benefit of critically analyzing European political models, such as the institution of aristocracy, in order to suggest better alternatives.

Republicanism is a political tradition in which the source of political power is found with the citizens able to elect their representatives.

Religious Tolerance

John Locke’s proposal for separating the Church and state also impacted American thinking and amplified the notion of religious tolerance. Religious tolerance was already part of early colonial America, which served as the safe haven for many religious minorities fleeing discrimination and persecution in Europe within the framework of the Protestant Reformation (1517). These breakaway religious groups comprised:

  • Puritans
  • Pilgrims
  • Huguenots
  • Quackers
  • Anabaptists
  • Scots-Irish

Central figures in the European Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, went further than the separation of Church and state and engaged in criticizing the irrational aspects of religion. Voltaire believed in religious tolerance not just within the framework of different Christian denominations but also at large.

These ideas did not go unnoticed in colonial America. Several American Founding Fathers including:

  • George Washington
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • James Madison

advocated for the freedom of worship to foster religious diversity and protect religious minorities. Thomas Paine proposed deism—the belief in God per se rather than linking God with a particular religious tradition. In turn, Thomas Jefferson published his own Bible (The Jefferson Bible, 1820), in which he compiled passages from the New Testament emphasizing morality. Jefferson’s omission of the passages featuring miracles was in line with Enlightenment-era rationality.

The Enlightenment in America - Key Takeaways

  • American Enlightenment was an 18th-19th-century intellectual current in American society, culture, political life, religion, and science. It was linked both to the European Enlightenment and the American Revolution.
  • The general Enlightenment ideals comprised rationalism, religious tolerance, social and scientific progress, individualism, opposition to corruption and aristocracy (critique of institutions), secularism, and republicanism.
  • There were many notable American Enlightenment figures, some of whom were also the Founding Fathers. They included Thomas Paine, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James, Madison.
  • The political aspects of the Enlightenment eventually led to the development of representative democracies in the U.S. and Europe.

References

  1. Hutton, Charles and Richard Pearson. The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, vol. x, 1750-1755, London: C. and R. Baldwin, 1809, p. 301.
  2. Ibid.

Frequently Asked Questions about American Enlightenment

The American Enlightenment (1714-1815) was a period in American intellectual history. It can be characterized by its focus on the ideas of rationalism, republicanism, individualism, social and scientific progress, and religious tolerance. The American Enlightenment affected the Thirteen Colonies and then the U.S. politically, socially, and culturally. This period was influenced by the earlier European Enlightenment. It was also linked to the American Revolution.

The Enlightenment in America was an important period in intellectual history between 1714 and 1815. Influenced by the Enlightenment in the Old World, American intellectuals, scientists, and the Founding Fathers examined questions of rationality, secularism and religious tolerance, social progress, natural science, and representative democracy. Like their European counterparts, they questioned the benefits and drawbacks of existing institutions and proposed better solutions. These thinkers influenced the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.

The Enlightenment in America took place between 1714 and 1815. This era of intellectual history was significantly impacted by the European Enlightenment of the 17th-18th centuries. The central ideas of the Enlightenment involved individualism, secularism, rationalism, scientific progress, societal amelioration, republicanism, and early versions of egalitarianism. American society was greatly impacted by the Enlightenment. First, it provided the intellectual basis for the American Revolution. Second, the Enlightenment set the U.S. on a path of developing a system of representative democracy. Third, the scientific developments of the Enlightenment gradually improved the quality of life.

The American Enlightenment came to an end around 1815 and was replaced by a period of Romanticism in culture and society that focused on emotion rather than the mind. However, progress in natural sciences and the development of democratic institutions, and other aspects linked to the Enlightenment, continued.

The American Enlightenment had several focal points. Arguably, the most important two features were rationalism (focus on the mind and logic) and freedom from strictly controlled social institutions (such as the Church).

Final American Enlightenment Quiz

Question

What year did Thomas Paine emigrate to America? 

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Answer

1774

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Question

After its publication, approximately how many copies of Common Sense were sold in America? 

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Answer

120,000

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Question

True or False: Before Common Sense was published, most American Colonists were loyal to the King of England

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Answer

False 

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Question

True or False: Before Common Sense was published, most American colonists were in favor of full independence from England

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Answer

False

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Question

Which common book did Thomas Paine reference in Common Sense? 

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Answer

The Bible 

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Question

Why did Thomas Paine use quotes from the Bible in his argument against the tyranny of England? 

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Answer

The Bible would be the book most common Americans would have read. 

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Question

What was unique about the language Thomas Paine used in Common Sense? 

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Answer

It was rash and simple, unlike the eloquent writing of others, making it accessible to ordinary people

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Question

What form of government did Thomas Paine argue in favor of in Common Sense? 

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Answer

A Republic 

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Question

What colonial sentiment did Thomas Paine "attack" as a means of proving his point of independence? 

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Answer

The Patriarchal society 

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Question

What was the meeting of colonial leaders in 1776, who were heavily influenced by Common Sense? 

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Answer

The Second Continental Congress

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Question

Name major figures from the American Enlightenment.

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Answer

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine

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Question

Name major figures from the European Enlightenment.

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Answer

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith

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Question

When did the American Enlightenment begin?

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Answer

1714

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Question

What were the central ideas of the Enlightenment period?

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Answer

The central ideas of the Enlightenment period included religious tolerance, individualism, rationalism, progress, social improvement, and the development of natural sciences.

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Question

What ideology is closely linked to Enlightenment ideals?

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Answer

Liberalism

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Question

TRUE OR FALSE: The American Revolution sparked the American Enlightenment?

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Answer

False

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Question

TRUE OR FALSE: as a scientist, Benjamin Franklin was best known for his work with electricity.

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Answer

True

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Question

Which European philosopher significantly influenced American political thought during the Enlightenment?

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Answer

John Locke

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Question

Which American political thinker contributed to the theoretical foundation of the American Revolution?

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Answer

Thomas Paine

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Question

What specific event is seen as the starting point of the American Enlightenment?

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Answer

The donation of Jeremiah Drummer’s book collection of Enlightenment books to Yale

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