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American Enlightenment

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American Enlightenment

The American Enlightenment is a period of intellectual ferment in the thirteen American colonies in the period 1714–1818, which led to the American Revolution, and the creation of the American Republic. Influenced by the 18th-century European Enlightenment, and its own native American Philosophy, the American Enlightenment applied scientific reasoning to politics, science, and religion, promoted religious tolerance, and restored literature, the arts, and music as important disciplines and professions worthy of study in colleges. The "new-model" American style colleges of King's College New York (now Columbia University), and the College of Philadelphia (now Penn) were founded, Yale College and the College of William & Mary were reformed, and a non-denominational moral philosophy replaced theology in many college curricula; even Puritan colleges such as the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) and Harvard reformed their curricula to include natural philosophy (science), modern astronomy, and math. The foremost representatives of the American Enlightenment included men who were presidents of colleges: Puritan religious leaders Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Clap, and Ezra Stiles, and Anglican moral philosophers Samuel Johnson and William Smith. The leading Enlightenment political thinkers were John Adams, James Madison, James Wilson, and Alexander Hamilton, and polymaths Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.


  • Dates 1
  • Religious tolerance 2
  • Intellectual currents 3
  • Architecture 4
  • Republicanism 5
  • European sources 6
  • Liberalism and republicanism 7
  • "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" 8
  • Deism 9
  • Religious tolerance 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12
  • Further reading 13
    • Biographies 13.1
    • Academic studies 13.2
    • Historiography 13.3
    • Primary sources 13.4


Various dates for the American Enlightenment have been proposed, including the dates 1750-1820,[1] 1765 to 1815,[2] and 1688-1815.[3] One somewhat more precise start date proposed [4] is the introduction of a collection of donated Enlightenment books by Colonial Agent Jeremiah Dummer into the library of the small college of Yale at Saybrook Point, Connecticut on or just after October 15, 1714. They were received by a young post-graduate student Samuel Johnson, of Guilford Connecticut, who studied the Enlightenment works. Finding they contradicted all his hard learned Puritan learning, he wrote, using the metaphors of light that would soon be used to characterize the age, that, “All this was like a flood of day to his low state of mind”,[5] and that “he found himself like one at once emerging out of the glimmer of twilight into the full sunshine of open day." Two years later in 1716 as a Yale Tutor, Johnson introduced a new curriculum into Yale using the donated Dummer books, offering what Johnson called "The New Learning",[6] which included the works and ideas of Francis Bacon, John Locke, Isaac Newton, Boyle, Copernicus, and literary works by Shakespeare, Milton, and Addison.Joseph Ellis has traced the impact of the newly introduced Enlightenment ideas on the Yale Commencement Thesis of 1718.[7]

Religious tolerance

A switch from sectarian politics and established religion in many states to religious tolerance, ecumenicalism, and the disestablishment of state religion was one of the distinguishing features of the American Enlightenment. The passage of the new Connecticut Constitution on October 5, 1818, overturned the 180-year-old "Standing Order" and the The Connecticut Charter of 1662, whose provisions dated back to the founding of the state in 1638 and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut; it has been proposed as a date for the triumph if not the end of the American Enlightenment.[8] The new constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, disestablished the Congregational church, and ended the last effective theocracy in America.

Intellectual currents

Between 1714 and 1818 a great intellectual change took place that changed the British Colonies of America from a distant backwater into a leader in the fields of moral philosophy, educational reform, religious revival, industrial technology, science, and, most notably, political philosophy. It saw the disestablishment of religion in all the states, and a consensus on a "pursuit of happiness" based political philosophy.


After 1780, the Ithiel Town designed and in 1814-1816 built the first Gothic Style church in North America, Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven, predating the English Gothic revival by a decade. In the fields of literature, poetry, music and drama some nascent artistic attempts were made, particularly in pre-war Philadelphia, but American (non-popular) culture in these fields was largely imitative of British culture for most of the period, and is generally considered not very distinguished.


Politically, the age is distinguished by an emphasis upon economic liberty, republicanism and religious tolerance, as clearly expressed in the United States Declaration of Independence. Attempts to reconcile science and religion resulted in a rejection of prophecy, miracle, and revealed religion, resulting in an inclination toward deism among some major political leaders of the age. American republicanism emphasized consent of the government, riddance of aristocracy, and fear of corruption. It represented the convergence of classical republicanism and English republicanism (of 17th century Commonwealthmen and 18th century English Country Whigs).[9]

J.G.A. Pocock explained the intellectual sources in America:[10]

European sources

Sources of the American Enlightenment are many and vary according to time and place. As a result of an extensive book trade with Great Britain, the colonies were well acquainted with European literature almost contemporaneously. Early influences were English writers, including James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, the Viscount Bolingbroke, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon (especially the two's Cato's Letters), and Joseph Addison (whose tragedy Cato was extremely popular). A particularly important English legal writer was Sir William Blackstone, whose Commentaries on the Laws of England served as a major influence on the American Founders and is a key source in the development Anglo-American common law. Although John Locke's Two Treatises of Government has long been cited as a major influence on American thinkers, historians David Lundberg and Henry F. May demonstrate that Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding was far more widely read than were his political Treatises.[11]

The Scottish Enlightenment also influenced American thinkers. David Hume's Essays and his History of England were widely read in the colonies,[12] and Hume's political thought had a particular influence on James Madison and the Constitution.[13] Another important Scottish writer was Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson's ideas of ethics, along with notions of civility and politeness developed by the Earl of Shaftesbury, and Addison and Richard Steele in their Spectator, were a major influence on upper-class American colonists who sought to emulate European manners and learning.

By far the most important French sources to the American Enlightenment, however, were Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws and Emer de Vattel's Law of Nations. Both informed early American ideas of government and were major influences on the Constitution. Voltaire's histories were widely read but seldom cited. Rousseau's influence was marginal. Noah Webster used Rousseau's educational ideas of child development to structure his famous Speller. A German influence includes Samuel Pufendorf, whose writings were also commonly cited by American writers.

Liberalism and republicanism

Since the 1960s, historians have debated the Enlightenment's role in the American Revolution. Before 1960 the consensus was that liberalism, especially that of John Locke, was paramount; republicanism was largely ignored.[14] The new interpretations were pioneered by J.G.A. Pocock who argued in The Machiavellian Moment (1975) that, at least in the early eighteenth-century, republican ideas were just as important as liberal ones. Pocock's view is now widely accepted.[15] Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood pioneered the argument that the Founding Fathers of the United States were more influenced by republicanism than they were by liberalism. Cornell University Professor Isaac Kramnick, on the other hand, argues that Americans have always been highly individualistic and therefore Lockean.[16]

In the decades before the American Revolution (1776), the intellectual and political leaders of the colonies studied history intently, looking for guides or models for good (and bad) government. They especially followed the development of republican ideas in England.[17] Pocock explained the intellectual sources in the United States:

The Whig canon and the neo-Harringtonians, John Milton, James Harrington and Sidney, Trenchard, Gordon and Bolingbroke, together with the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance masters of the tradition as far as Montesquieu, formed the authoritative literature of this culture; and its values and concepts were those with which we have grown familiar: a civic and patriot ideal in which the personality was founded in property, perfected in citizenship but perpetually threatened by corruption; government figuring paradoxically as the principal source of corruption and operating through such means as patronage, faction, standing armies (opposed to the ideal of the militia), established churches (opposed to the Puritan and deist modes of American religion) and the promotion of a monied interest — though the formulation of this last concept was somewhat hindered by the keen desire for readily available paper credit common in colonies of settlement. A neoclassical politics provided both the ethos of the elites and the rhetoric of the upwardly mobile, and accounts for the singular cultural and intellectual homogeneity of the Founding Fathers and their generation.[18]

The commitment of most Americans to these republican values made inevitable the American Revolution, for Britain was increasingly seen as corrupt and hostile to republicanism, and a threat to the established liberties the Americans enjoyed.[19]

Leopold von Ranke, a leading German historian, in 1848 claims that American republicanism played a crucial role in the development of European liberalism:

By abandoning English constitutionalism and creating a new republic based on the rights of the individual, the North Americans introduced a new force in the world. Ideas spread most rapidly when they have found adequate concrete expression. Thus republicanism entered our Romanic/Germanic world.... Up to this point, the conviction had prevailed in Europe that monarchy best served the interests of the nation. Now the idea spread that the nation should govern itself. But only after a state had actually been formed on the basis of the theory of representation did the full significance of this idea become clear. All later revolutionary movements have this same goal.... This was the complete reversal of a principle. Until then, a king who ruled by the grace of God had been the center around which everything turned. Now the idea emerged that power should come from below.... These two principles are like two opposite poles, and it is the conflict between them that determines the course of the modern world. In Europe the conflict between them had not yet taken on concrete form; with the French Revolution it did.[20]

"Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"

Many historians[21] find that the origin of this famous phrase derives from Locke's position that "no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions."[22] Others suggest that Jefferson took the phrase from Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England.[23] Others note that William Wollaston's 1722 book The Religion of Nature Delineated describes the "truest definition" of "natural religion" as being "The pursuit of happiness by the practice of reason and truth."[24]

The George Mason, is:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

The United States Declaration of Independence, which was primarily written by Jefferson, was adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. The text of the second section 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.


Thomas Paine

Both the Moderate Enlightenment and a Radical or Revolutionary Enlightenment were reactions against the Christianity as a tool of tyrants and oppressors and as being used to defend monarchism, it was seen as hostile to the development of reason and the progress of science and incapable of verification.

An alternative religion was Thomas Jefferson.[25] The most articulate exponent was Thomas Paine, whose The Age of Reason was written in France in the early 1790s, and soon reached the United States. Paine was highly controversial; when Jefferson was attacked for his deism in the 1800 election, Republican politicians took pains to distance their candidate from Paine.[26]

Religious tolerance

Enlightened Founding Fathers, especially religious freedom for minority denominations. According to the founding fathers, the United States should be a country where peoples of all faiths could live in peace and mutual benefit. James Madison summed up this ideal in 1792 saying, "Conscience is the most sacred of all property." [27]

See also


  1. ^ Ferguson Robert A., The American Enlightenment, 1750-1820, Harvard University Press, 1994
  2. ^ Adrienne Koch, referenced by Woodward, C. Vann, The Comparative Approach to American History, Oxford University Press, 1997
  3. ^ Henry F. May, referenced by Byrne, James M., Religion and the Enlightenment: From Descartes to Kant, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996, p.50
  4. ^ Olsen,Neil C., Pursuing Happiness: The Organizational Culture of the Continental Congress, Nonagram Publications, ISBN 978-1480065505 ISBN 1480065501, 2013, p. 145
  5. ^ Johnson, Samuel, and Schneider, Herbert, Samuel Johnson, President of King's College; His Career and Writings, editors Herbert and Carol Schneider, New York: Columbia University Press, 1929, Volume 1, p. 7
  6. ^ Johnson and Schneider
  7. ^ Joseph J. Ellis, The New England Mind in Transition: Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, 1696-1772, Yale University Press, 1973, Chapter II and p 45
  8. ^ Olsen, p.16
  9. ^ Linda K. Kerber, "The Republican Ideology of the Revolutionary Generation," pp. 474–495 in JSTOR
  10. ^ J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment p 507
  11. ^ See David Lundberg and Henry F. May, "The Enlightened Reader in America," American Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 2 (1976): 267.
  12. ^ See Mark G. Spencer, David Hume and Eighteenth-Century America (2005).
  13. ^ See Douglass Adair, "'That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science': David Hume, James Madison, and the Tenth Federalist," Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 4 (1957): 343-360; and Mark G. Spencer, "Hume and Madison on Faction," The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., vol. 59, no. 4 (2002): 869-896.
  14. ^ See for example, Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (1927) online at [1]
  15. ^ Shalhope (1982)
  16. ^ Isaac Kramnick, Ideological Background," in Jack. P. Greene and J. R. Pole, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (1994) ch 9; Robert E. Shallhope, "Republicanism," ibid ch 70.
  17. ^ Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (1965) online version
  18. ^ Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment p 507
  19. ^ Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967)
  20. ^ Adams, Willi Paul (2001). The First American Constitutions: Republican Ideology and the Making of the State Constitutions in the Revolutionary Era. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 128–29. 
  21. ^ J. R. Pole, The pursuit of equality in American history (1978) p. 9
  22. ^ Locke, John (1690). Two Treatises of Government (10th edition).  
  23. ^ Paul Sayre, ed., Interpretations of modern legal philosophies (1981) p 189
  24. ^ James W. Ely, Main themes in the debate over property rights (1997) p. 28
  25. ^ Sanford, Charles B. The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson (1987) University of Virginia Press, ISBN 0-8139-1131-1
  26. ^ Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (1977) p 257
  27. ^ Bryan-Paul Frost and Jeffrey Sikkenga, History of American political thought (2003) p. 152

Further reading


  • Aldridge, A. Owen, (1959). Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine. Lippincott.
  • Cunningham, Noble E. In Pursuit of Reason (1988) well-reviewed short biography of Jefferson.
  • Weinberger, Jerry Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought (University Press of Kansas, 2008) ISBN 0-7006-1584-9

Academic studies

  • Allen, Brooke Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers (2007) Ivan R Dee, Inc, ISBN 1-56663-751-1
  • Bailyn, Bernard The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1992) Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-44302-0
  • Bedini, Silvio A Jefferson and Science (2002) The University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 1-882886-19-4
  • Cohen, I. Bernard Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Madison (1995) WW Norton & Co, ISBN 0-393-03501-8
  • Dray, Philip Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America (2005) Random House, ISBN 1-4000-6032-X
  • Ellis, Joseph. "Habits of Mind and an American Enlightenment," American Quarterly Vol. 28, No. 2, Special Issue: An American Enlightenment (Summer, 1976), pp. 150–164 in JSTOR
  • Ferguson, Robert A. The American Enlightenment, 1750–1820 (1997) Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-02322-6
  • Gay, Peter The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (1995) W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0-393-31302-6; The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom (1996) W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0-393-31366-2
  • Greeson, Jennifer. "American Enlightenment: The New World and Modern Western Thought." American Literary History (2013) online
  • Israel, Jonathan A Revolution of the Mind – Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (2009) Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-14200-9
  • Jayne, Allen Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy and Theology (2000) The University Press of Kentucky, ISBN 0-8131-9003-7; [traces TJ's sources and emphasizes his incorporation of Deist theology into the Declaration.]
  • Koch, Adrienne. "Pragmatic Wisdom and the American Enlightenment," William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 3 (Jul., 1961), pp. 313–329 in JSTOR
  • May, Henry F. The Enlightenment in America (1978) Oxford University Press, USA, ISBN 0-19-502367-6; the standard survey
  • May, Henry F. The Divided Heart: Essays on Protestantism and the Enlightenment in America (Oxford UP 1991) online
  • McDonald, Forrest Novus Ordo Seclorum: Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (1986) University Press of Kansas, ISBN 0-7006-0311-5
  • Meyer D. H. "The Uniqueness of the American Enlightenment," American Quarterly Vol. 28, No. 2, Special Issue: An American Enlightenment (Summer, 1976), pp. 165–186 in JSTOR
  • Nelson, Craig Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations (2007) Penguin, ISBN 0-14-311238-4
  • Reid-Maroney, Nina. Philadelphia's Enlightenment, 1740-1800: Kingdom of Christ, Empire of Reason (2000)
  • Richard, C.J. Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome and the American Enlightenment (1995) Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-31426-3
  • Sanford, Charles B. The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson (1987) University of Virginia Press, ISBN 0-8139-1131-1
  • Sheridan, Eugene R. Jefferson and Religion, preface by Martin Marty, (2001) University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 1-882886-08-9
  • Staloff, Darren Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding. (2005) Hill & Wang, ISBN 0-8090-7784-1
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1993) Vintage, ISBN 0-679-73688-3


  • Caron, Nathalie, and Naomi Wulf. "American Enlightenments: Continuity and Renewal." Journal of American History (2013) 99#4 pp: 1072-1091. online
  • Dixon, John M. "Henry F. May and the Revival of the American Enlightenment: Problems and Possibilities for Intellectual and Social History." William & Mary Quarterly (2014) 71#2 pp: 255-280. in JSTOR

Primary sources

  • Torre, Jose, ed. Enlightenment in America, 1720-1825 (4 vol. Pickering & Chatto Publishers, 2008) 1360 pages; table of contents online at Pickering & Chatto website
  • Lemay, A. Leo, ed. Franklin: Writings (Library of America, 1987)
  • Jefferson, Thomas. Thomas Jefferson, Political Writings ed by Joyce Appleby and Terence Ball. Cambridge University Press. 1999 online
  • Paine, Thomas. Thomas Paine: Collected Writings. Ed. Eric Foner. Library of America, 1995. ISBN 1-883011-03-5.
  • Smith, James Morton, ed. The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776–1826, 3 vols. (1995)
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