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Free «American Enlightenment» Essay Sample

Enlightenment – the heyday of the intellectual life of mankind, the emergence of new ideas, a new philosophy. It is focused on the value of life and personality of each individual and the recognition of the human mind as the main value. According to the words of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, “Enlightenment – a way out of the state of minority rights, in which it was their own fault”[1].

Formation of a national culture and the development of Enlightenment in America were complex and diverse in nature. It should be emphasized that critical in this process were the material conditions of the life of the colonists. Under their influence ultimately the degree and nature of the influence of English culture were determined, evolved traits and features of the new American culture, “… it was inevitable – said American historian Wertenbeker – that the cultural currents of England, hitting the U.S. coast, had to undergo a profound change, and this is reflected in different ways in each domain, depending on what the bank was”[2].

By the middle of the XVIII century in the North American colonies of England there were signs of folding the new nation[3]. In different colonies in different ways the influence of Enlightenment ideas on the development of culture emerged and their impact on the socio-economic life and the socio-political relations was also different. Undoubtedly, however, that throughout the time of the national-liberation movement has made great progress. Certain commonality in the development of culture and education stood exposed, which together with other factors, is an important prerequisite of the bourgeois revolution.

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Characteristically, in the American society belief in progress was originally circulated, supported by indifference to the past. Through the practice of tolerance forms of social life tended to customize, and corporate economic structure is simply not available. American state institutions were originally “cleaned” of the vestiges of feudalism and monarchism, unlike the British political system. Extremely soft censorship, the recognition of “habeas corpus”, the lack of local government the right to change the taxation on your own – all was consistent with the spirit of the Enlightenment[4]. However, these guidelines did not address the problem of slavery. “Negrophobia” was one of the most painful aspects of American life. While in the colonies and the defenders were black (one of the first – Anthony Benezet – filadelfiets with Huguenot roots)[5]. Thus, the expression “American Enlightenment” may not be entirely correct. Indeed, the Enlightenment thought and the desire for sovereignty was widely spilled in American society, and not opposed to it. However, the system of Enlightenment values of American society should be learned much deeper, together with the influence of political thought of the era, which determined the direction of further development of political system of the USA and became a start of formation of human rights concept, and is the main thesis of the presented research.

In the process of analyzing peculiarities of the Age of Enlightenment in the USA, we will consider: changes in religious thinking, brought by the coming of the era; philosophical concept of human; activity of main political figures of the American Enlightenment; influence of cultural and religious factors; and changes in way of thinking, on political processes. In concluding stage of the research we will attempt to evaluate the contribution of the Age of Enlightenment to modern concept of human, and state of political development in the USA and civilized world. 

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Religion, culture and political thought in the United States of Enlightenment

One of the features of America of XVIII century is the close connection of new forms of thinking, which fit into the educational mainstream, with religion. It was expressed in a particular religious sensitivities of Americans, and their tolerance. Despite the fact that in all the colonies acted traditional faiths, from mid-century, almost religious pluralism affirmed[6]. As for American Enlighteners, most of them were deists. That is, to prove that the act of creation when nature starts to operate and develop its own rules, so there is no room for any miracles, of course they advocated religious tolerance. The very existence of God can be proved on the basis of causality – or rather, on the basis of the need to complete the chain of causation, that is, to find the root cause of everything. Thus enlightenment and religion are intertwined in America very closely[7].

For the American Enlightenment is characteristic pronounced anti-clerical stance, opposition to Christian religious cult worship of reason. With particularly sharp attacks on the Christian church Payne, J. Allen, K. Colden spoke. American Enlighteners were deists (not atheists), the leading online was radical democratic wing of the deists[8]. They promoted also other advanced philosophical and social theories of the time, standing on the positions of rationalism, the theory of natural law, expands upon the innate, natural equality of people were in favor of the republic. Democracy and direct involvement in the revolution were typical for most American enlighteners. It makes their philosophy revolutionary conclusions, defending the idea of popular sovereignty, justified the right of the people to revolution[9].

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In the early Enlightenment materialist ideas were developed by scientists T. Cooper, B. Rush, J. Buchanan, which stressed the need to link the philosophy with the natural sciences[10]. In addition to scientific papers and political journalism, Enlightenment is reflected in literature (poetry of F. Freneau, satirical novels of X. Breckenridge)[11].

American Enlightenment thinkers have inherent to the ideologists of revolutionary epochs unity of theoretical and practical interests, social attitudes and encyclopedic richness versatility. Warrior and diplomat, philosopher, and the party leader, a political pamphleteer and naturalist – various aspects of their revolutionary activities, the various facets of their solid and diverse personalities.

Striking embodiment of the reorientation of American thought and the Enlightenment as a whole is person of Benjamin Franklin, writer, scientist, philosopher, social and political figure and diplomat. Puritan ancestry and upbringing not prevented a very versatile and absolutely secular interests of Franklin[12]. To him as a deist spiritual problems of his ancestors turned on ethics, the adjustment of own destiny, and service to society. His maxims (eg, the famous “time is money”) represent the path to self-improvement, and numerous essays provide a systematic program to improve human nature and society, which is based on the utilitarian principle: “Only a virtuous people can be happy”[13].

In the culture of the United States of this period the colonial legacy dominated. Despite the lack of a unified system of education in America, the most education in the country, particularly in New England, attached great importance to the issue of self-improvement of the individual. In the XVIII century, this value has increased many times: education was seen as a cure for man and society. In 1701 Yale University was founded, before the War of Independence in different colonies revealed nine colleges, which later also became universities. By mid-century, there were already had eight universities, including Harvard (near Boston, founded in 1636), Yale (New Haven, Massachusetts, founded in 1701), Philadelphia (founded by Franklin in 1740), Princeton (in the state of New Jersey, founded in 1746), Columbia (in the state of New York, founded in 1754)[14].

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In addition to scientific papers and political journalism, the Enlightenment is reflected in literature (poetry of F. Freneau, satirical novels of X. Breckenridge). Revolutionary-democratic ideas of the American Enlightenment, and especially constitutional documents adopted in the revolutionary era and embodied the idea of Enlightenment – Virgin Declaration of Rights (1776), the Declaration of Independence in 1776 – had an impact on the ideology and laws of the French Revolution[15].

To the set of the most important features we should include the specific nature of American romanticism’ connection with the Enlightenment. Romanticism both denied education, and developed some of the trends inherent in it. In the U.S., succession side was expressed more. American Classic in most continued struggle of enlighteners for democracy, for the honor and dignity of the common man – a representative of the Third Estate, for ensuring that the Declaration of Independence “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has been providing not only to white, but color[16].

American philosopher, the third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) believed that every person born with inherent moral sense of right and wrong. The historical process by Jefferson – is fight of innate moral principles and human selfishness, which is enshrined in the social and state forms[17].

It can be said that the American Enlightenment of XVIII century was a social movement, the objectives of which is to replace the tradition by rational approach, absolute religious dogma – scientific inquiry and the monarchy – representative government. Enlightenment thinkers and writers promoted the ideals of justice, freedom and equality, including their inalienable human rights[18].

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The Puritans, who came to New York, are early for the American philosophy in the mainstream religious traditions, emphasizing the relationship between the individual and society. This is evident in documents such as the basic laws of Connecticut.

In particular, John Winthrop believed that social life must address individual. Roger Williams believed religious tolerance, in contrast to the religious homogeneity, more essential condition for social cohesion[19].

Despite individual, mostly external signs of similarity ideology and philosophy of the Enlightenment as a whole is the exact opposite of puritanism. Particularly acute is evident in the interpretation of the essence of man, his freedom and the meaning of life. American enlighteners, though emphasizing the role of the social environment in forming of personality, based on the essence of man saw natural principle. Human model, developed by American educators, has had a significant impact on the understanding of human problems by philosophers of the XX century, in particular those who adhered to the naturalistic orientation[20].

In “Human Rights” (1791-1792) Paine (1737-1809) emphasizes that the study of human nature does not have to start from a particular historical time, and from the moment he stepped out of the hands of the Creator. This implies that in nature, according to the Creator’s plan all people are equal.”I want to say this – says Payne – that all people are one of its kind and, therefore, they are all born equal and have equal natural rights”[21].

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American Enlightenment has been able to draw on the experience of advanced thought colonies of XVII age, –  the works of Hooker, Roger Williams, and Wise. In addition, Enlightenment thought in the United States was fed ideas of the European Enlightenment. In the colonies people read Locke and Shaftesbury, Defoe, Swift, works of Montesquieu and Voltaire penetrated here[22].

But the main task of the American Enlightenment was preaching republican ideas, strong condemnation of the monarchy, protection of national sovereignty. Moreover, the American Enlightenment figures were able to take a direct part in the revolution – they have become its ideology and its political leaders.

1760-1770 years were characterized by the democratization of the political consciousness of Americans and American political culture. At first glance, the Americans only picked principles already well mastered in the ideology of the Enlightenment. But in reality, these principles constantly democratized and penetrated into all the larger society. In America, an ideological revolution developed, which prepared and made possible a half decades later, the political revolution. This fact just noticed by one of the American founding fathers, John Adams, who wrote later that originally “revolution was accomplished in the minds and hearts of the people, developing from 1760 to 1775, for 15 years before the first blood was shed at Lexington”[23]. Democratization also touched political practice in North America. Previously unknown forms of political action of the people were developing: mass gatherings, meetings, rallies. On them through direct expression resolutions, appeals, various manifestos and declarations were adopted. Thus the immediate or direct democracy was formed, which started to compete with representative democracy. Create all sorts of amateur political organizations, the most famous of which are “Sons of Liberty”[24]. Policy ceased to be the lot of the upper class, it is increasingly drawn into the lower layers. This is not only prepared the anti-colonial revolution, but also a democratic restructuring of government within the United States itself.

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Among historians view that the American Revolution was brought to life by the British colonial rule that stifle development in the provinces of capitalism and democracy is generally prevailing. As noted by the head of the “imperial school” in the historiography of the United States Charles Andrews, the “dramatic situation”, bringing to life the American Revolution, was the contradiction between the fixed, based on tradition and precedent of the metropolitan system and the needs of the “living, dynamic organism”, which was colonies[25].

Enlightenment, along with the American Revolution gave a powerful impetus to the development of a new literary genre in America – journalism and a new direction in American literature – political literature. And the first half of the XIX century, aroused interest in American prose writers and novelists Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper[26]. Professional American theater was born simultaneously with the emergence on the world map of a new country – the United States of America. In XIX century American theater was the same way as the European scene. In the first half of the XIX on the stage romanticism dominated – the pathos of a protest nurse personal autonomy, and full of passion and temperament acting style. Thus already in the century of the existence of the country, American culture has acquired distinctive identity[27].

The appeal to the “natural and inalienable human rights” has increased in America since 1744, when it became apparent reluctance of English Parliament to make concessions. In 1776, with the advent of “the Virginia Bill of Rights”, the situation of the freedom of the human is dramatically changing. If the earlier grant of rights and liberties of the Crown took place on top of the ruler and they were not included in the context of social justice, but now they have been taken by “the representatives of the good people of Virginia”, ie, owed its existence to the sovereignty of the people and are guaranteed to everyone. As a result, the idea of human rights has gained a convincing victory, at least at the level of the Constitution[28].

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The Declaration of Independence, adopted unanimously by all 13 states, also reproduces the logic and reasoning of the natural and inalienable rights of man, and on this basis formulates and declares the constitutional principle of popular sovereignty and the people’s right to political self-determination and independent existence[29].

Formation of an independent state and the elimination of feudal elements have created the conditions for the rapid development of capitalism in the United States, which was concluding and resulting stage of the Age of Enlightenment in the USA. 


American Enlightenment philosophy is a bright page in the history of the advanced philosophical thought in the XVIII.

In their philosophical works figures of the American Enlightenment continue a cause for which on the European continent the British and the French materialists and enlighteners have fought.

The ongoing debate are not ceasing – what influenced the formation of the ideology of the revolution most – the ideas of the Enlightenment or Puritanism. Rather, Puritanism was a wrapper for the secular ideas of social reconstruction. The thinkers of the era did not break with theology and religion, but their world, as opposed to the official puritanism, in a number of important sociological ideas clearly resonate with the philosophy of the Enlightenment. As part of the Enlightenment developed the American legal thought, one of the main achievements was the adoption of a national identity. For America, which was then the cultural and intellectual “province”, the idea of overseas Enlighteners have had a decisive effect: here they were more favorable than in Europe, the soil, as it specifically “loosened” to them over the course of the national history. Enlightenment rationalism also found a warm response from the inhabitants of the North American colonies, originally refracted even in New England, the seemingly antagonistic to it in spirit[30].

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Throughout U.S. history, in the basis of American society, the political system and political culture the same social archetype lay, which can be defined as a bourgeois liberal. Its classic lines it found it in the XVIII century, and since then, they sanctified the public, including the political, values, chief among which were private property, its inviolability and inalienability of the sovereignty of the individual and civil society, the competition as a determinant of economic relations and social relations, contractual form of political power formation, the rule of law, shared by the majority of society and all social classes and groups, among them non- bourgeois. This has created a sound natural environment establishment and continuity of bourgeois-liberal political institutions and the political hegemony of the bourgeois class.

Thinking of modern man is penetrated by categories, rooted in the Enlightenment (the belief in the omnipotence of scientific progress, instead of faith in God, faith in the justice of the bourgeois-democratic institutions, the social significance of art). These provisions express historical optimism, energy of bourgeois class (young in that period), and can relate to the whole history of the bourgeois period: the ideology of the Enlightenment to the present day is embodied in practice in the social structure of the Western democracies.

Victorious American Revolution – is a triumph of ideology of the Enlightenment. Among the major achievements of the revolution we should include important legislative measures to secularization of civil institutions, particularly the separation of church and state and the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. XVIII century, that so radically changed the way of thinking, has brought significant changes in the spiritual, intellectual and social life of America. Movement of the American Enlightenment is closely linked to the struggle of British colonies in North America for independence (1775-1783), which was ended with the creation of the United States of America. In the development of social and political programs that produced a theoretical basis for the construction of an independent state, were engaged T.Peyn (1737-1809), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and B.Franklin (1706-1790). Their theoretical program formed the basis of the principal laws of the new state: the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the Constitution of 1787.


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Old ideas, ideals and ambitions, however, were not rejected, but rethought and reformulated in accordance with the scientific and philosophical conquest of Age of Reason. The development of the continent is no longer associated with the search for treasure and an easy life, and with God’s guidance, but with the ideas of liberalism and progress, as well as feasibility.

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