The Enlightenment influenced the American Revolution by proposing thoughts and ideas that questioned traditional leadership and led to a new constitution. Through a combination of philosophy, politics and communications, the Enlightenment prompted societal reform.
The Enlightenment period was from 1685 to 1815. It was also known as the Age of Reason. During this time, prominent philosophers emerged in Britain, France and other European countries. They proposed that societies everywhere could be changed through social reform, which gained traction with restless and unhappy citizens in the United States and abroad. A main facet of the Enlightenment was that it gave commoners a sense of empowerment. This ultimately led to revolutions and warfare, and toppled many long-standing regimes.
The Enlightenment coincided with the American Revolution, which took place between 1775 and 1783. Many factors led to the outbreak of the Revolution, but a chief factor was the American colonists' discontent with the British government. In the decade before the Revolution, the British government attempted to exert more control over the 13 colonies. But the colonists resisted, inspired in large part by the emergence of European philosophes, who were a handful of European scholars that promoted social equality and justice in nations everywhere. Their teachings spread to the shores of the United States as post-Middle Age Europe brought an increase in overseas voyages and an expansion of global trade. The economic prosperity in Europe also gave rise to a more prosperous and particular middle class who questioned authority. Its anti-authority sentiment was sparked by the Protestant Reformation, which encouraged thinkers to question the authority of the Catholic Church. With the emergence of printing technologies, this idea spread quickly to Americans across the Atlantic.
Americans quickly warmed to the philosophies of pro-democratic European scholars including Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire. These men encouraged people to question the rule of authority, particularly in monarchical societies like France. Montesquieu also proposed a breakdown of government into separate branches. This concept was very attractive to American citizens, and ultimately led to the restructuring of the American government. While these philosophers set the stage for change in the United States, John Locke is credited with prompting citizens to turn words into action. Locke proposed that humans could use rational thought to avoid tyranny. In Locke's mind, the ideal government was one where a leader assumed authority based on the support and approval of the people. Locke stated that it was a government's right to protect its people, including life, liberty and justice. If the government failed to carry out these responsibilities, its citizens had a right to overthrow their leader. This concept, which was the pillar of American democracy, inspired Thomas Jefferson's drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
Liberty and Justice for All
Inspired by revolts and prominent philosophers in Europe, several important documents emerged in Britain that set the stage for American freedom. In 1628, the Petition of Right granted commoners a say in government affairs. Government activities were previously reserved strictly for the upper classes. The English Bill of Rights, drafted in 1688, gave certain rights to people accused of crimes. It also guaranteed free elections. This spirit of freedom, democracy and equality inspired the formation of a new American government that honored the Enlightenment values of freedom, liberty, justice and equality.