Four themes recur in both European and American Enlightenment texts: modernization, skepticism, reason and liberty. Many Enlightenment thinkers—especially the French philosophes , such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot—subscribed to some form of skepticism, doubting appeals to miraculous, transcendent and supernatural forces that potentially limit the scope of individual choice and reason. Besides identifying dominant themes running throughout the Enlightenment period, some historians, such as Henry May and Jonathan Israel, understand Enlightenment thought as divisible into two broad categories, each reflecting the content and intensity of ideas prevalent at the time.
The moderate Enlightenment signifies commitments to economic liberalism, religious toleration and constitutional politics. In contrast to its moderate incarnation, the radical Enlightenment conceives enlightened thought through the prism of revolutionary rhetoric and classical Republicanism. Influenced as it was by the British and French, American Enlightenment thought integrates both moderate and radical elements. American Enlightenment thought can also be appreciated chronologically, or in terms of three temporal stages in the development of Enlightenment Age thinking.
The middle stage extends from to just a few years after the start of the American Revolution in It is characterized by an exploding fascination with science, religious revivalism and experimental forms of government, especially in the United States. However, American Enlightenment thinkers were not always of a single mind with their European counterparts. For instance, several American Enlightenment thinkers—particularly James Madison and John Adams, though not Benjamin Franklin—judged the French philosophes to be morally degenerate intellectuals of the era.
Many European and American Enlightenment figures were critical of democracy. John Adams and James Madison perpetuated the elitist and anti-democratic idea that to invest too much political power in the hands of uneducated and property-less people was to put society at constant risk of social and political upheaval. In the Two Treatises on Government and , Locke argued against the divine right of kings and in favor of government grounded on the consent of the governed; so long as people would have agreed to hand over some of their liberties enjoyed in a pre-political society or state of nature in exchange for the protection of basic rights to life, liberty and property.
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However, if the state reneged on the social contract by failing to protect those natural rights, then the people had a right to revolt and form a new government. Perhaps more of a democrat than Locke, Rousseau insisted in The Social Contract that citizens have a right of self-government, choosing the rules by which they live and the judges who shall enforce those rules. European Enlightenment thinkers conceived tradition, custom and prejudice Vorurteil as barriers to gaining true knowledge of the universal laws of nature. Deists appreciated God as a reasonable Deity. A reasonable God endowed humans with rationality in order that they might discover the moral instructions of the universe in the natural law.
Deists were typically though not always Protestants, sharing a disdain for the religious dogmatism and blind obedience to tradition exemplified by the Catholic Church. Rather than fight members of the Catholic faith with violence and intolerance, most deists resorted to the use of tamer weapons such as humor and mockery. Some struggled with the tensions between Calvinist orthodoxy and deist beliefs, while other subscribed to the populist version of deism advanced by Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason.
Despite the near absence of God in human life, American deists did not deny His existence, largely because the majority of the populace still remained strongly religious, traditionally pious and supportive of the good works for example monasteries, religious schools and community service that the clergy did. Another idea central to American Enlightenment thinking is liberalism, that is, the notion that humans have natural rights and that government authority is not absolute, but based on the will and consent of the governed. Rather than a radical or revolutionary doctrine, liberalism was rooted in the commercial harmony and tolerant Protestantism embraced by merchants in Northern Europe, particularly Holland and England.
Liberals favored the interests of the middle class over those of the high-born aristocracy, an outlook of tolerant pluralism that did not discriminate between consumers or citizens based on their race or creed, a legal system devoted to the protection of private property rights, and an ethos of strong individualism over the passive collectivism associated with feudal arrangements. Liberals also preferred rational argumentation and free exchange of ideas to the uncritical of religious doctrine or governmental mandates. In this way, liberal thinking was anti-authoritarian.
Although later liberalism became associated with grassroots democracy and a sharp separation of the public and private domains, early liberalism favored a parliamentarian form of government that protected liberty of expression and movement, the right to petition the government, separation of church and state and the confluence of public and private interests in philanthropic and entrepreneurial endeavors. The U. Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, guarantees a schedule of individual rights based on the liberal ideal.
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Republican values include civic patriotism, virtuous citizenship and property-based personality. Developed during late antiquity and early renaissance, classic republicanism differed from early liberalism insofar as rights were not thought to be granted by God in a pre-social state of nature, but were the products of living in political society. On the classical republican view of liberty, citizens exercise freedom within the context of existing social relations, historical associations and traditional communities, not as autonomous individuals set apart from their social and political ties.
The Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer, which had its roots in the similar Roman ideal, represented the eighteenth-century American as both a hard-working agrarian and as a citizen-soldier devoted to the republic. When elected to the highest office of the land, George Washington famously demurred when offered a royal title, preferring instead the more republican title of President.
Though scholarly debate persists over the relative importance of liberalism and republicanism during the American Revolution and Founding see Recent Work section , the view that republican ideas were a formative influence on American Enlightenment thinking has gained widespread acceptance.
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Though the Enlightenment is more often associated with liberalism and republicanism, an undeniable strain of conservatism emerged in the last stage of the Enlightenment, mainly as a reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution. Though it is argued that Burkean conservatism was a reaction to the Enlightenment or anti-Enlightenment , conservatives were also operating within the framework of Enlightenment ideas. Some Enlightenment claims about human nature are turned back upon themselves and shown to break down when applied more generally to human culture. For instance, Enlightenment faith in universal declarations of human rights do more harm than good when they contravene the conventions and traditions of specific nations, regions and localities.
Similar to the classical republicans, Burke believed that human personality was the product of living in a political society, not a set of natural rights that predetermined our social and political relations. Conservatives attacked the notion of a social contract prominent in the work of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau as a mythical construction that overlooked the plurality of groups and perspectives in society, a fact which made brokering compromises inevitable and universal consent impossible.
Burke only insisted on a tempered version, not a wholesale rejection of Enlightenment values. Conservatism featured strongly in American Enlightenment thinking. Within a few years that proposition was to become bitterly divisive, both among the American people and among the Founding Fathers themselves. Washington first tried to hold the balance but ultimately threw his tremendous weight decisively against the Jeffersonian theory of the continuity and kinship of the two revolutions.
The Jefferson of the early s, the champion of the French Revolution, was an ardent believer in, and prophet of, civil religion in the sense adumbrated by Rousseau.
That is, he sought to animate an apparently secular and political idea—that of liberty, "the true god"—by breathing into it the kinds of emotions and dispositions with which religion had been invested in the Age of Faith. Of this religion Thomas Jefferson was more than a prophet—he was a pope.
As the author of the Declaration of Independence, he possessed the magisterium of liberty. He could define heresy and excommunicate heretics. To fail to acknowledge, for example, that the French Revolution was an integral part of the holy cause of liberty, along with the American Revolution, was heresy, and the heretic had to be driven from public life. Thomas Jefferson ardently preached and energetically practiced his own version of civil religion.
But is that civil religion compatible with the American civil religion as we know it today? In investigating that question we have to begin by asking another question: What kind of American was Thomas Jefferson? He was a good American in the general sense; he held America and Americans to be vastly superior to Europe and Europeans, morally and socially speaking.
But he was not an American nationalist, politically speaking. He was not an "America firster. Nor was this an isolated trick of speech. The United States was not an object that engaged his emotions; Virginia was. The Declaration of Independence was for him a sacred document, part of the civil religion of liberty.
The Constitution of the United States was not; it was a political document, just about acceptable, and no more, for pragmatic reasons, and remaining acceptable only as long as the federal government respected what Virginians regarded as the limits of its authority. Federal institutions, including the presidency, were workaday things, not invested with the spiritual aura of the civil religion.
Virginia remained the holy land of liberty. In his epitaph Jefferson did not mention the fact that he had twice been President of the United States as among the significant events of his career. He did mention—along with his authorship of the Declaration of Independence—his foundation of the University of Virginia. In terms of that old dialogue between head and heart, the heart was always with Virginia, and only the head with the United States.
In political life, as in his personal emotional life, Jefferson's head usually prevailed over his heart.
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But this was not always the case. When, in , under President John Adams, Virginia appeared to be threatened by an excess of federal government, Jefferson encouraged Virginians to resist. Virginians and other southerners of later generations, in challenging what they perceived as the excessive claims of the federal government, were to that extent in the Jefferson tradition. In the s John C. Calhoun, the great propagator of states'-rights ideology in the antebellum South, claimed Jefferson's authority for his "Nullification" doctrine: that states could treat as null and void federal laws they regarded as intruding on the proper sphere of the states.
Calhoun invoked as precedents the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions rejecting the Alien and Sedition Laws passed by Congress in Calhoun observed that the Kentucky resolutions were "now known to have emanated from the pen of Mr. Jefferson's authority was important to the leaders of the South in the s as validating the philosophy of Nullification: a philosophy that had within it the germ of the eventual secession. But by the s Nullification had come to be regarded by southerners as axiomatic "self-evident" truths, indeed , so Jefferson's validation was now surplus to requirements.
And Jefferson was by this time becoming deeply unpopular with the more ardent defenders of southern institutions. The reason was that from the s on, the hated abolitionist press had been making copious use of Jefferson's "antislavery" writings, mainly from Notes on the State of Virginia. For example,. Back in the late eighteenth century the Virginia slaveowners who were Jefferson's contemporaries hadn't taken this Jeffersonian antislavery seriously. They knew Jefferson personally, and knew he meant no harm.
And many of them were in the habit of saying the same sorts of things themselves, in appropriate company. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, southerners had to take Jefferson's antislavery writings seriously, because northerners were taking them seriously, and using them against the South. Taking the Declaration of Independence in conjunction with Jefferson's antislavery utterances well publicized in the North for more than two decades , northerners were able on the eve of the Civil War to read antislavery intentions into the Declaration of Independence itself, and thus to enlist both the Declaration and its author on their side in the coming war.
In a letter of April, , Lincoln wrote,. After the Civil War that accolade from the martyred President secured a continuing place for Jefferson in the pantheon of the American civil religion. The Jeffersonian vessel had survived the rapids of the Civil War and remained holy in the eyes of large numbers of Americans, among both the victors and the vanquished. In his posthumous reputation, as in his political career, luck was on Jefferson's side. Still, there were always some begrudgers, and there were many more in the North than in the South.
In the South it was Jefferson—more firmly than before the Civil War—who was at the center. That is to say, sectional and regional alignments were again for a time essentially what they had been in the late eighteenth century. In the first half of the twentieth century the most important occurrence affecting the posthumous reputation and civil-religion status of Thomas Jefferson was the New Deal. Peterson depicts the Roosevelt Administration as building a great national temple to Jefferson's memory. The temple is the Jefferson Memorial in Washington , dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the two hundredth anniversary of Jefferson's birth, April 13, According to an official brochure, "Inscriptions at the memorial were selected by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission and were taken from a wide variety of his writings on freedom, slavery, education and government.
All of this passage except for the last sentence is taken from Notes on the State of Virginia. The last sentence is taken from Jefferson's Autobiography. That sentence, as isolated in the memorial inscription, deceives the public as to Jefferson's meaning. For the original passage in the Autobiography continues, " Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.
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