American Enlightenment

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The American Enlightenment was a portion or variation of the Age of Enlightenment where intellectual leaders on the North American continent made significant contributions to philosophical thought.

Several of the Founding Fathers made large contributions to the philosophy that would be a part of what drove the American Revolution. Some of the primary thinkers of the day included Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, James Madison, Thomas Paine, John Adams, George Mason, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, Jonathan Edwards, John Witherspoon, and Samuel Johnson.

The American Enlightenment, the philosophy that government should be limited so as to not interfere with individual citizens' liberty, is a distinctly American ideal and is the bedrock foundation of American Exceptionalism.


There is dispute among historians as to the exact dates of the American Enlightenment. Some historians place it ranging from the years of 1750-1820,[1] while others place it in between 1720-1825.[2] What is accepted is that the philosophical aspects that would become Americanism are distinct.

Much of early American life involved the Church and religious institutions, so naturally, individual rights and the source of those rights was a major topic. From the early 1600s all the way up to the Revolution, the Church was central to the colonies. Some historians have sought to separate the influential role of religion from the American Enlightenment,[3] while others have recognized the importance of religion yet removing all mention of the American Enlightenment.[4]

Much of the writing that comprises the American Enlightenment is not from authors who spent their entire lives publishing, but rather from people who spend their lives in their pulpits working with citizens on an individual level, and only making a large impact once or perhaps twice.[5]

European Enlightenment Influence

Authors such as John Locke, Montesquieu, Cicero and others also had an influence, particularly with their discourses' on Natural Law. One author, Sir William Blackstone, is referred to by the Founding Fathers more than to any other English or American authority. Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England sold more copies in the colonies than it was back in England.[6]

Natural Law

Natural Law or God's Law[7] was an important aspect of the American Enlightenment. Emanating from the pulpits, from the pens of both well known Founding Fathers as well as lesser known patriots, as well as being emblazoned on the Declaration of Independence itself, Natural Law - the recognition that God is the source of rights and not government - was an extensively held belief during the period.


Most of (if not all) of the Founders recognized the dangers of democracy and did much to protect the citizens from it.


  1. (1994) The American Enlightenment, 1750-1820. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674023222. 
  2. (2008) Enlightenment in America, 1720-1825, Volumes 1-4. Pickering & Chatto Publishers. ISBN 978-1851969364. 
  3. (1933) Religion of the American enlightenment. Crowell. 
  4. (1864) Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, developed in the official and historical annals of the Republic, 334. 
  5. (1963) The political thought of the American Revolution, Part 3, 7–10. “The leading thinkers among the ministers, for the most part sons of the Puritan churches, were Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, Samuel Cooper, Stephen Johnson, Jonas Clarke, Samuel Webster, and Samuel Cooke. A step behind this select band of prophets was a small army - "the black Regiment," as Peter Oliver labeled it - of staunch expounders of English and natural rights: William Gordon, Samuel West, Samuel Langdon, Judah Champion, Ebenezer Devotion, Simeon Howard, Amos Adams, John Cleaveland, Phillips Payson, Isaac Skillman, John Allen, Thomas Allen, Gad Hitchcock, John Tucker, Charles Turner, Ebenezer Bridge, Eliphalet Williams, Edward Barnard, Jason Haven, Samuel Lockwood, and literally hundreds of others hardly less skilled than Mayhew or Cooper” 
  6. (1907) Report of the Tenth Annual Meeting of the Rhode Island Bar Association. The Association, 18. 
  7. Sir William Blackstone, Blackstone Institute

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