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American Intellectual History 101: Effect of Enlightenment Thinkers

Foreword


The American Intellectual History 101 series explores major public intellectuals and their contributions to the developmental process of American intellectual history from the American Revolution to the Civil War through the discussion of significant texts that adds to the public issues of the moment. This article series aims to provide an in-depth analysis of the establishment of the new republic and its institutions of individualism, transcendentalism, civil disobedience, women’s rights and the cult of domesticity and slavery by diving into the core values that have shaped the United States. Aiming to present the ideologies and worldviews of the United States of America, this analysis includes many thinkers and cultural pioneers to demonstrate the roots of some notions which made the U.S. a unique nation with distinct goals and ideals that have influenced the world.


This series will be divided into seven articles:

  1. American Intellectual History 101: A Native American Reflects on White Culture – Kandiaronk vs. Lahontan

  2. American Intellectual History 101: Effect of Enlightenment Thinkers

  3. American Intellectual History 101: Ideals of Founding Fathers

  4. American Intellectual History 101: American Individuality from Tocqueville’s Perspective

  5. American Intellectual History 101: Transcendentalism

  6. American Intellectual History 101: Cult of Domesticity in American Society

  7. American Intellectual History 101: The Institution of Slavery


The American Revolution, which spanned from 1765 to 1783, was a time of great change, upheaval, and transformation in the American colonies. During this period, the colonists rebelled against British rule and fought for their independence, resulting in the formation of the United States of America. The formation of this new nation was not only a political and military victory, but also a philosophical one, as it marked a significant shift in political thought and ideology. Two intellectuals relying on rationality played a significant role in shaping the political and philosophical foundations of the new American Republic: Thomas Paine and John Locke, who represented Enlightenment ideas by emphasising the importance of equality, freedom and reason.


Thomas Paine was an English-American political activist and writer who played a significant role in shaping the political landscape of the American Revolution. His writings, particularly his pamphlet Common Sense helped galvanise support for American independence and helped to construct the political ideals of the revolution. Paine was a strong advocate for republicanism, individualism, and democracy. In his famous pamphlet, The Rights of Man, Paine argued that all men were created equal and should be granted equal rights and opportunities. This idea helped to lay the foundation for the democratic principles that would later shape the new American Republic. John Locke, an English philosopher and political theorist, was another influential figure shaping the political and philosophical foundations of the new American Republic. Locke’s ideas on government and individual rights heavily influenced the American Revolution, and his work Two Treatises of Government provided an important theoretical foundation for the new American Republic. Locke’s ideas on natural rights, limited government and the social contract heavily influenced the American revolutionaries, who sought to establish a government that protected individual rights and freedoms while limiting the power of government.


Figure 1: Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense is shown here presenting his pamphlet (Steve Simon Art Store Fronts, n.d.).

The impact of Thomas Paine and John Locke on the development of the new American Republic was significant and enduring. The principles of democracy, freedom, and equality that Paine and Locke championed continue to be fundamental values of American society, and their ideas on individual rights and limited government continue to frame American political discourse. The legacy of Thomas Paine and John Locke serves as a reminder of the importance of political and philosophical thought in shaping the course of history and the foundations of modern society.


Thomas Paine, in his influential work Common Sense, argued for American independence from Great Britain. Paine, frankly declaring he opposed monarchy, argued that it was both unreasonable and unjust. According to Paine, the English monarchy was an outdated system that relied on the arbitrary rule of a single individual, and it was inherently prone to corruption and tyranny;

“the English Constitution is nothing more than a composition of unwritten laws, and hereditary claims, and as such is the most barefaced usurpation upon the rights and liberties of the people” (Paine, 1776, p. 125).

In his view, the English monarchy had no legitimate claim to power and was a threat to individual rights and freedom. Paine argued that the only way to secure liberty and justice was to break away from British rule and establish a democratic republic based on the will of the people. In addition, Paine argued that the English monarchy was not only an ineffective form of government but was also fundamentally incompatible with the principles of democracy and individual liberty. In Common Sense, Paine asserted that “the plain truth is, that the antiquity of English monarchy will not bear looking into” (Paine, 1776, p. 7). He argued that the English monarchy was rooted in the idea of divine right, which gave the monarch absolute power and made them unaccountable to the people. This, according to Paine, was a direct violation of the principles of democracy and individual liberty, which held that power should ultimately reside in the hands of the people. Moreover, Paine believed that the English monarchy was a relic of a bygone era and that it had outlived its usefulness in a modern, democratic society. As he put it, “Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom” (Paine, 1776, p. 127). In Paine’s view, the time had come for the American colonies to break free from the yoke of the English monarchy and establish a new form of government based on the principles of democracy and individual liberty.


Merriam Jr. (1940) writes in his book Thomas Paine’s Political Theories that “Paine’s contribution to the theory of democracy lies in his understanding of the economic and social bases of political power, and his insistence that the common people were the ultimate source of political authority” (p. 29). Merriam argues that Paine’s ideas about democracy were grounded in his belief that political power should be distributed among the people, rather than concentrated in the hands of a few elites. Paine believed that a democratic government should be based on the will of the people, rather than the interests of the ruling class. Merriam’s analysis highlights the importance of Paine’s contribution to the development of democratic theory and his advocacy for greater political representation and empowerment of ordinary citizens.


Figure 2: Cover Page of Thomas Paine's Common Sense (HVAC School, 1776).

Another concept that Thomas Paine (1776) highlights in his work is equality and social hierarchy. Paine asserts that;

“For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his family in perpetual preference to all others forever, and though himself might deserve some decent degree of honors of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them“ (p. 128).

Paine, advocating for a more merit-based system of social hierarchy, voices that it is unjust for individuals to claim entitlement to a higher social status or privilege based solely on their ancestry. He argues that such a system would perpetuate inequality and injustice, as it would allow certain families to maintain their dominance over others for generations, regardless of their actual merit or ability. In other words, just because someone may have deserved recognition and honours during their life does not mean that their children or grandchildren automatically deserve the same treatment. This understanding speaks to the idea of social mobility, where people are free to pursue their own ambitions and achieve success based on their own merit, rather than being limited by the circumstances of their birth.


Paine believed that Colonies should declare independence and establish a new nation that is based on an egalitarian basis by excluding the monarchy and tyranny of Britain. Reck (1991) in his article, The Enlightenment in American Law I: The Declaration of Independence, locates Paine within the Revolutionary Enlightenment contour which refers to “the belief in the possibility of constructing a new heaven and earth out of the destruction of the old” (p. 550). Paine called for a complete overhaul of the existing political system, including the dismantling of the monarchy and the establishment of a new system of government based on democratic principles. He saw this as essential for the realisation of individual freedom, accountability, and justice, and he called for a revolution to achieve this goal. He believed that this would require a revolution, as the existing power structures were too deeply entrenched to be reformed through incremental change. Paine (1776) argued that the republican system would be more conducive to individual freedom and autonomy;

“A government of our own is our natural right: and when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced that it is infinitely wiser and safer to form a constitution of our own, in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance” (p. 129).

In a republic, he believed that citizens would have greater control over their own lives and would be free to pursue their own interests and ambitions without fear of arbitrary interference from a monarch or other authority figure. Furthermore, Paine (1776) saw the rule of law as a cornerstone of the new American republic; “But where, say some, is the king of America? I’ll tell you, friend, He reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the royal brute of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth, placed on the divine law, the Word of God: let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king” (p. 129). Paine points out that the law should be based on the principles of justice and equity, and that it should be applied impartially and consistently. He argued that the rule of law was essential for protecting individual rights and freedoms. He believed that the law should serve as a bulwark against tyranny and that it should be designed to protect citizens from abuse of power by the government or other authorities.


John Locke on the other hand, had a prominent impact on the development of the new American republic. His work, Two Treatises of Government, provided an important theoretical foundation for the new American Republic, and his ideas on natural rights, limited government, and the social contract heavily influenced the American revolutionaries. In the second chapter of the Second Treatise of Civil Government, John Locke discusses the state of nature and the origin of political power. Locke argues that in the state of nature, all individuals have natural rights to life, liberty, and property. However, in the absence of government, these rights are constantly threatened by other individuals who may use force or fraud to take them away. This leads to a state of war, which is characterised by violence and insecurity. To escape the state of nature, individuals form a social contract and establish a government to protect their natural rights. Caron & Wulf (2016) in their article American Enlightenments: Continuity and Renewal state that;

“Locke believed that in a state of nature, individuals were naturally free and equal, and that they entered into a social contract with each other to establish a civil society, and that the government derived its authority from the consent of the governed“ (p. 3).

In other words, Locke believed that individuals had natural rights in the state of nature, and they gave up some of those rights to form a government that would protect their remaining rights. Locke’s theory of social contract and natural rights influenced the founding fathers of the United States, who adopted similar ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, emphasising the idea that governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed.


Figure 3: John Locke


According to Locke, political power is derived from the consent of the governed, and governments are established to protect the natural rights of individuals. Therefore, governments have a duty to protect the life, liberty, and property of their citizens. If a government fails to do so, individuals have the right to revolt and establish a new government that will fulfil its obligations. Locke’s argument in the second chapter of the Second Treatise of Civil Government is significant because it lays the groundwork for his theory of limited government and the importance of individual rights. This argument also influenced the development of liberal democratic thought and the American Revolution. One example of Locke’s argument in this chapter can be found in the following quote: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions“ (1689, p. 396). This quote emphasises the natural equality and independence of individuals, and the importance of the natural law in governing human behaviour in the absence of government.


In the seventh chapter of the Second Treatise of Civil Government, John Locke argues that political and civil societies are formed through the consent of individuals. He argues that individuals in a state of nature are free and equal, but also vulnerable to conflicts and aggression. Therefore, individuals come together and establish a civil society with a government that has the power to enforce laws and protect their natural rights. Locke argues that the purpose of government is to protect the natural rights of individuals, which include life, liberty, and property. He also proposes the idea of the separation of powers, where the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government are separate entities, preventing any one branch from becoming too powerful. Additionally, Locke argues that individuals have the right to dissolve a government that does not serve the purpose for which it was established, as the power of government is derived from the consent of the governed. Locke (1689) writes: “Men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent“ (Chapter 7, para. 87). Locke emphasises that his belief in the importance of individual consent in the formation of civil society and the establishment of a government that serves the purpose of protecting natural rights. Furthermore, Locke’s emphasis on the separation of powers and the right of individuals to dissolve a government that does not fulfil its purpose were influential ideas that were incorporated into the founding of the United States of America.


Figure 4: Cover Page of John Locke's Two Treatises of Government (British Library, 1789).


Caron and Naomi Wulf’s article American Enlightenments: Continuity and Renewal (2017) states that;

“Locke’s emphasis on natural rights, limited government, and the right of the people to rebel against an oppressive government all played important roles in shaping the ideas and actions of American revolutionaries“ (p. 50).

This quote highlights the significant impact of Locke’s ideas on the development of the American Republic. His emphasis on natural rights and limited government can be seen in the Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration also asserts that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed and that the people have the right to alter or abolish a government that becomes destructive of these ends. These ideas reflect Locke’s belief in the importance of individual rights and the responsibility of government to protect those rights. Thus, Locke’s ideas were instrumental in shaping the foundational principles of the new American Republic.


In the fourth chapter of the Second Treatise of Civil Government, John Locke argued against the idea of absolute monarchy and the notion of divine right, which were commonly accepted during his time. He stated that every individual has a natural right to freedom, equality, and property and that these rights cannot be taken away by any government or ruler. Moreover, Locke (1689) believed that slavery was a violation of these natural rights and a form of tyranny, stating that “every man has a property in his own person; this nobody has any right to but himself“ (p. 396). Locke also asserted that the power of the government must be limited and that it should be based on the consent of the governed. He argued that the purpose of government was to protect individual rights and that any government that failed to do so could be overthrown by the people. Locke proposed the idea of a social contract, where individuals agree to surrender some of their natural rights to the government in exchange for the protection of their remaining rights. He wrote: “Men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent“ (Locke, 1689, p. 396).


In conclusion, the ideas put forth by John Locke in the Second Treatise of Government and Thomas Paine in Common Sense played a crucial role in shaping the foundational principles of the new American Republic. Both Locke and Paine championed the idea of individual liberty, popular sovereignty, and the social contract between the government and the governed. Locke’s theory of natural rights and limited government influenced the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which established the principles of individual rights and limited government. On the other hand, Paine’s call for independence and popular sovereignty inspired the American Revolution, and his emphasis on the importance of democratic government was instrumental in shaping the American democratic system. Together, the ideas of Locke and Paine helped to lay the foundation for the American democratic experiment, and their contributions to the development of liberal democratic thought continue to be celebrated and studied today.


Bibliographical References

Locke, J. (2018). The Second Treatise of Government. Charles River Editors.


Reck, A. J. (1991). The Enlightenment in American Law I: The Declaration of Independence. The Review of Metaphysics, 549-573.


Caron, N., & Wulf, N. (2013). American Enlightenments: Continuity and Renewal. The Journal of American History, 99(4), 1072-1091.


Merriam, C. E. (1899). Thomas Paine’s Political Theories. Political Science Quarterly, 14(3), 389–403. https://doi.org/10.2307/2139704


Paine, T. (1776). Common Sense: 1776. Information, Incorporated.

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Hazal Kazancı

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