The Relationship between the Enlightenment and the Founding Fathers
The 17th century was marked by a special period in the European history, namely the Enlightenment. It was characterized by the development of the scientific, philosophical, and social thought. According to Eric Foner, rationalism and freedom of thought became the basis for this intellectual movement (Foner, 2012, n.d.). Its ideas had a great influence on subsequent changes in the ethics and social life of Europe and America. In particular, they initiated the struggle for national independence of the American colonies, the further abolition of slavery, and the formulation of the main human rights. Founding Fathers applied the main principles of the Enlightenment to promote the American independence and implemented them in the American Declaration of Independence.
The 18th century was a period of active introduction of the ideas of the European Enlightenment into the social, political, and cultural spheres of life. The New World from the very beginning of its colonization became the main source of the revolutionary ideas of the inalienable human rights for freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness (Maier, 1997, p. 164). It has always been a refuge for the oppressed, persecuted, or exiled. In fact, the New World gave equal possibilities of self-realization and well-being for everyone (Foner, 2012, n.d.). The European rationalism during the Enlightenment found a warm response among the colonists. However, the main reason that led the American colonists to secede from England was the fact that the former opposed the discriminatory policies that the King and Parliament were trying to impose on the colonies (Morton, 2003, p. 188).
The American Enlightenment was influenced by the formation of the anti-colonial doctrine, namely the birth of the idea of national identity and the desire to separate from the metropolis. American colonists were aware of their position as distant servants of the British Empire. The formal, traditional interference of the British Parliament in the local political decisions was irritating, especially after 1688, when the Empire supported the trade with the colonies only with the commercial purposes. Thomas Jefferson assumed the general theoretical justification for America’s independence from the British Empire. He supported the idea of the ancient constitutional law, which guaranteed all Anglo-Saxon colonies freedoms, and the concepts of Lock’s liberalism, whose abstract principles legitimized the claims of the colonies as natural (Wills, 2002, p. 59-60). People began to actively develop the sense of the national consciousness during the Enlightenment as a part of the new American legal thought.
At the end of the 18th century, the Continental Congress prepared a resolution in support of the colonies’ independence from the British Empire (Wills, 2002, p. 207). On June 11, a committee of five deputies began its functioning. The Founding Fathers worked on the text of the Declaration of Independence. According to Wills, who assessed the political and legal views of Paine, Jefferson, and Hamilton, it is important to understand that for the first time in the history of the idea of natural law they helped specify the doctrines in the constitution documents (Wills, 2002, p. 358-359). The Declaration prepared ideological foundations for the emergence of the American State. Moreover, it established a principle of popular sovereignty, people’s rights, and freedoms. The political philosophy of the document is dependent on four simple principles. People have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The American Declaration of Independence documented the principle of popular sovereignty, asserting that the source of power is not the identity of the absolutist monarch, but the people themselves (Viegas, 2003, p.55). The Founding Fathers postulated the idea of the social agreement between the government and free individuals. They explained the purpose of the legitimate authority, which stems from the protection of the rights of individuals. Otherwise, the activists would have never supported this form of the social agreement. Accordingly, the power of the English king, which violated numerous human rights, was not legitimate. Therefore, the right and duty of free individuals made them rise against the tyrannical monarchy and declare the independence confirmed by the Declaration of independence. The Founding Fathers, primarily Jefferson as the main author of the Declaration, used the following expressions: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” (Viegas, 2003, p. 89). Acting on this premise, people establish government to protect their rights, which is the theory of the social contract. Thus, the power of the authorities stems from their right to represent the individual’s will, which is the concept of representative government.
The Founding Fathers underlined that the highest value was the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson’s Declaration referred to this notion as an important moral and psychological attitude of the existence in society. Accordingly, it proves the influence of Christian ethics on Jefferson’s political views (Maier, 1997, p.120). Later, it caused a significant impact on the entire system of his political beliefs. This is evident from the above-mentioned provisions of the Declaration, relating to equality of human beings and their inalienable rights. According to Jefferson, humanitarian installations in operation and people’s behavior should be an important factor in the political relations between them.
The authors of the Declaration of Independence emphasized the importance of the Enlightenment’s value of self-determination. First, they believed in an individual as the core element of society, who had right for freedom, happiness, and self-development. In Jefferson’s approach to the problems of equality and inalienable human rights to life and liberty, one can trace the influence of the ideas of liberalism of the English philosopher John Locke, including the interpretation of the theory of natural law (Maier, 1997, p. 88). Furthermore, Jefferson sought to build a new republic in America. He wrote about a classical democracy, which would be fully respectful towards human rights, including the right to life, liberty, property, participation in political life, and the exercise of power in local and federal bodies of the republic (Maier, 1997, p. 89). He advocated religious freedom and separation of church and state to achieve complete political equality and autonomy of powers.
Benjamin Franklin also took a peculiar position and in 1766 developed the concept of home rule as well as argued that the British emigration to America meant their complete break with the laws and Constitution of England (Maier, 1997, p. 102). By this logic, the colonists could no longer be considered British by virtue of the migration to the New World. Thus, the main principles of the Founding Fathers reflected the Enlightenment’s philosophy of common sense and traditions of the Scottish Enlightenment and fitted well in the context of the political philosophy of the 18th century.
The ideas that appeared as a result of the European Enlightenment in the 17th-18th centuries had become the basis for the American values and ideals formulated later during the American Revolution. Secularization of civil institutions, especially the separation of church and state as well as the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, became the major gains of the revolution. The 18th century brought a significant change in the spiritual, intellectual, and social life of America. Previous ideas, ideals, and ambitions were undergoing a change according to the scientific and philosophical context of the Enlightenment. Moreover, the Declaration of Independence became a manifestation of the main ideas of the American Enlightenment (Parker, 2010, p.140). The values presented in the American Declaration of Independence appeared long before the events of the Enlightenment and influenced the formation of the United States. According to Parker, since the Declaration of Independence, the development of the New World was associated with the ideas of liberalism, progress as well as feasibility (Parker, 2010, p.142). The Declaration of Independence is a unique political and legal document that the Founding Fathers prepared. It reflected a number of provisions that originate from the political philosophy of the Enlightenment. The principles of the American sovereignty and the protection of the human rights and freedoms formed the basis for the Declaration as well as other important political and legal documents of the United States.