The Age of Enlightenment’s influence on the American Constitution

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by Lucien Smith

Newton’s modern and scientific appeal to reason not only shatter old notions of science but broaden the scope of study in many other fields as well. It uses reason, the scientific approach of measuring what one could see empirically to find the truth of things.

The use of the scientific approach led the way for the creation of political science, then it was a new term, that employed this method of study to discover the laws of nature in the world of politics. The scientific revolution inspired the new period called the Enlightenment or the Age of reason (the 1600s). The age of enlightenment produced scientific methods of studying politics. Newton had used reason to explain the laws governing nature. Others used Newton’s methods to expand the study of legislation governing ways of other fields including government.

Outstanding political thinkers writing in the time of the Age of Reason such as Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau shaped the thinking of people who would later write the American Constitution. Men like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and other framers of the Constitution drew heavily from the writings of these earlier political thinkers.

Hobbes advocated a strong ruler. People would have to give up their rights for a strong leader to receive justice, law and, order. He called this deal “the social contract.” This view helped create the Executive branch in the American Constitution. The leaders of the American revolution widely read Hobbes and others and decide to write this view of a strong leader, a Leviathan, into the American Constitution.

Locke influenced the American Constitution by advocating at least two most important principles: the right to self-governance and the protection of three natural rights-life, liberty, and property. He differed from Hobbes in that he asserted that man was born neither good nor evil, but was shaped by his life’s experiences. Hobbes believed that man’s state of nature was “nasty, brutish, and short.” War would inevitably break out without a Leviathan. Locke believed that one could learn to be better. If one is born neither good or bad but is shaped by his or her experiences, then one can learn from those experiences, and use the experience to govern better; hence, he advocated self-government.

“All people,” Locke said, “are free and equal and have natural rights to life, liberty, and property.” One can find this line almost word for word in the American Constitution as ” All men are created equal and have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”. Jefferson wrote it. He was one of the great political thinkers who played a significant role in shaping this American document.

“The ideas of popular consent and the right to rebel against unjust rulers later helped inspire struggles for liberty in Europe and the Americas.”
Perry, Scholl, Davis, Harris, Von Laue. History of the World. Houghton Mifflin; (p 419), 1993.

How did Voltaire influence the constitution? He advocated freedom of speech. ” I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” One can find this powerful assertion in the American Constitution as the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. In his works, he criticized clergy, aristocracy and the government. He advocated tolerance, reason and limited government.

Montesquieu advocated the separation of powers. The executive branch, of Hobbes Leviathan, the legislature, or the consent of the governed under Locke, and the court system, Voltaire’s reason, and limited government, all, he felt, should be divided against each other to keep any one group or person from gaining total control of the government.

How did Rousseau’s writings influence the American Constitution? He advocated direct democracy. He improved the social contract by not giving the rights to a ruler or a representative to make laws, but he supported keeping what he considers a natural right to be directly expressed. Rousseau’s idea created one man, one woman, one vote, that is not found not only in America today but in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa.

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and the other framers of the American Constitution, not only read Hobbes, Locke Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, but they acted with passion and daring to create this reality from these theories. To paraphrase what Newton said, the American Constitution stands on the shoulders of many great men and women.

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