WH2 Enlightenment 2: The High European Enlightenment, the Enlightenment in America, and the Declaration of Independence as an Example of Enlightenment Thought



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WH2 Enlightenment 2: The High European Enlightenment, the Enlightenment in America, and the Declaration of Independence as an Example of Enlightenment Thought


Part I: Essential Questions


  1. As an alternative to traditional revealed religion, why was Deism considered to be such an attractive alternative by Enlightenment philosophes?

  2. Knowing what you do about the Enlightenment, on what basis would you argue for/against the proposition that the United States Declaration of Independence is an Enlightenment-inspired document?


Part II: Primary Source Material and Classnotes
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence, 1776

Secondly: I answer, such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty will be borne by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going, it is not to be wondered that they should then rouse themselves, and endeavor to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the end for which government was at first erected...
John Locke, Concerning Civil Government, 1693

Locke’s little book on government is perfect as far as it goes.
Thomas Jefferson, 1790


  1. To fully understand the Enlightenment, it must be understood that its goal was not SKEPTICISM (i.e., it is not possible to know anything) but rather, just as it was during the medieval period, CERTAINTY. However, as opposed to the MIDDLE AGES, the starting point for certainty was NOT the AUTOMATIC AUTHORITY of the CHURCH and ARISTOTLE, but rather REASON, beginning perhaps from the standpoint of CARTESIAN RATIONALISM with the only certainty that can be known, which is our own existence based on the fact that we think, which we in turn know because we DOUBT. No longer would submission to AUTHORITY and then the arrangement of naturalistic observations to support that authority be the model for understanding nature, but rather REASON and ANALYSIS preceded by the careful observation of NATURE.




  1. The Enlightenment question distills down to EPISTEMOLOGY; that is, how do we know what we know and what are the STANDARDS by which we obtain that knowledge? Do we comprehend nature by starting with those pre-ordained truths that are provided by TRADITION and AUTHORITY and then limit ourselves to explaining all observations of nature in a manner consistent within this medieval framework, or do we follow the EVIDENCE as interpreted by our REASON to whatever conclusions they might lead even if they INVALIDATE what authority an tradition tells us is TRUE?




  1. We saw earlier how Galileo’s use of the telescope around 1610 resulted in observations that finally DESTROYED Aristotle’s model of the universe, and note again that around 1620 Francis Bacon published his NOVUM ORGANUM, in which he argued that the authority of Aristotle and medieval logic should be permanently tossed aside, and use reason to INTEGRATE their experience is such a way as to discover the true order of nature. “The” Enlightenment was in full swing, but remember—although it would spread throughout Continental Europe, England, Scotland, and America, it wasn’t the FIRST movement to assert the primacy of REASON as apposed to tradition and authority for understanding the ordering of nature---remember the IONIAN Enlightenment?




  1. Like the earlier Enlightenment in the 17th Century, the 18th century European Enlightenment (a) did NOT view automatic authority, tradition, and REVEALED RELIGION as the basis of certainty; instead they relegated this power to the realm of REASON; (b) did NOT view Aristotle as providing a model for understanding the workings of the universe, but instead viewed the universe as governed by RATIONAL LAWS which reason could discover; (c) believed that HUMAN BEHAVIOR, including the very complex realms of POLITICS and SOCIAL THEORY, were also governed by lawful principles which reason could comprehend; by effectively engineering the ENVIRONMENT human society could be significantly improved; (d) optimistically exalted SECULAR values; that is, concern with the HERE AND NOW instead of the HEREAFTER.




  1. Humanity was now viewed as having the technological and intellectual wherewithal to better its own condition; applied reason was therefore channeled from exclusively scientific pursuits to human affairs. This tradition started with Frances Bacon’s 1627 publication of his work entitled NEW ATLANTIS which demonstrated how scientific principle applied to society could result in the betterment of human life to produce a UTOPIA.




  1. With the ready availability of multitudes of published BOOKS, NEWSPAPERS, PAMPHLETS, etc. on virtually every topic which were easily available to the an increasingly WEALTHY (mainly in England and France via new markets opened by the east-west TRANSATLANTIC TRADE routes) bourgeoisie with leisure time to contemplate intellectual issues, the 18th century saw the emergence of a very highly educated and far less tradition-bound MIDDLE CLASS, whereas previously the acquisition of such knowledge had been the domain of court philosophers operating under a long-established system of ROYAL PATRONAGE.




  1. And so, for example, instead of falling under the exclusive province of VERSAILLE and other royal courts throughout Europe, Enlightenment intellectual life gravitated to SALONS in cities such as PARIS and LONDON, there to be propagated by a kind of intellectual free-lancer known as a PHILOSOPHE, of which VOLTAIRE is perhaps the best-known example; DIDEROT and his encyclopedia ranks as important here as well since what comprised essentially the ENTIRE KNOWN BODY OF KNOWLEDGE us to that time was now easily available to a wealthy middle class. However, countries like GERMANY and ITALY which did not have such easy access to these new trade routes remained stronger adherents to TRADITION, the result being that they were far more likely to see the Enlightenment as an ASAULT on established order especially when its thinkers attacked the CHURCH.




  1. A dangerous ABSTRACTION was now in the works. DEISTS, for example, saw God as being revealed through the laws of nature: to understand the physical laws of the universe and to comprehend their underlying mathematics was to know the mind of GOD. Similarly, PANTHEISM held that God wasn’t reflected through his creation of the natural world; God IS nature, and so by experiencing nature one was also experiencing and therefore getting to know GOD. Both Deism and Pantheism rejected ORTHODOX Christianity as IRRATIONAL.




  1. Questions therefore began to arise that were reminiscent of the REFORMATION: If we can know God through the direct experience of NATURE and an understanding of the laws that govern it, then why do we need the church? What value do the clergy add to society? Is it RATIONAL to continue supporting this institution? The church itself didn’t help the situation, as Diderot’s encyclopedia was placed on the index of BANNED BOOKS and secular reform was opposed by it at virtually every turn.




  1. For Enlightenment theorists, the next logical step following their criticism of REVEALED RELIGION, the clergy, and the institution of the CHURCH was to argue for the irrationality of DIVINE RIGHT MONARCHY. What was rational about believing that God had ORDAINED a specific family to rule an entire nation and had handed authority down to them across generations on a golden platter?




  1. Much here began to b evaluated within the context of John Locke’s argument that humanity, possessing REASON, had NATURAL RIGHTS consisting of LIFE, LIBERTY and PROPERTY; government itself was a contractual relationship that required YIELDING some individual freedoms for the protection of these rights. If government breaks this contract, then it could and should be overthrown.




  1. Towards the middle of the 18th century, Montesquieu argued that there must be a system of CHECKS and BALANCES on the power of the monarch; this obviously DID NOT play well in ABSOLUTIST circles and yet were CRITICAL for Jefferson as he cast the Declaration of Independence, which we now take the time to read in its entirety so that we can come to comprehend it as an ENLIGHTENMENT DOCUMENT:


When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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 — that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed —that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred. to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.



  1. There are many important attributes that stand out in this document, both for what it DOES and what it DOES NOT contain. Of hugely significant status is the document’s appeal to REASON through the ENUMERATION of the causes of the separation from the mother country. Also defining this text as an ENLIGHTENMENT document is its positive, enthusiastic view of humanity created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Life wasn’t a burden to be borne in anticipation of the AFTERLIFE as defined by the traditions of authority and revealed religion, but rather a STATE OF HUMANITY during which striving for happiness was an entirely appropriate and achievable GOAL.




  1. To the extent that government FAILED to promote and support these goals among its citizenry, it could be MODIFIED or OVERTHROWN, and here we see the obvious influence of LOCKE on JEFFERSON.




  1. And yet, despite the presence and influence of GIANTS of the American Enlightenment such as BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, the Declaration of Independence doesn’t elevate SLAVES to the level of those persons who are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, with many subsequent analyses suggesting that having done would have ALIENATED slave holding colonies without whose support the Revolution could have neither been FOUGHT not WON.


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