The Enlightenment Period
An Intellectual Movement

The period calledThe Enlightenment” was an intellectual movement of sorts that began in Europe. At the core was human reason for the purpose of social progress. This social progress would be achieved via laws, not just laws created by men, but the inclusion of natural laws as well. It started in the mid 1600’s and ran through the 18th century. The Enlightenment “…stressed the power of human reason to promote social progress by discovering the laws that governed both nature and society.” (U.S. Vol 1, p 92)
The affect on early America was varied. Involvement included politician
Signing the Declaration of Independence
s, clergy and those who realized early success in the colonies. Much of the involvement was in the area of literacy. The number of literate colonists was approximately half by the middle of the eighteenth century, mostly all white males. The enlightenment period had not yet included people of color, or women. While literacy was on rise through the writings of then current philosophers and teachers alike, the enlightenment period did little to sway the religious beliefs of the colonists. Traditional Christian beliefs were as strong as ever, as were the beliefs in witchcraft.

What did receive a marked increase was the area of scientific discovery and inventions. Not to be left behind, Benjamin Franklin not only invented a stove to more efficiently heat houses, but also was then conducting experiments with electricity.{Anecdote, A Shocking Discovery.}Experiments would later become one of his many claims to fame.
One huge factor behind the Enlightenment in America was religion. As the Enlightenment spread across Europe, religion was constantly being challenged. Many people were beginning to believe that knowledge, logic, and observation were superior to faith. Anything that could not be proven by science could no longer be considered an absolute truth. Obviously, this created many problems between the clergy and the governments. Those who were completely dedicated and loyal to their religion often resorted to violence when dealing with those who opposed their views. The American colonists wished to avoid these conflicts, so they developed the idea of separation of church
Separation of Church and State
and state. Having separation of church and state meant that no government law or enforcement would be allowed to interfere with anybody’s personal religious beliefs. This, of course, meant that America would encompass freedom of religion. No American citizen would be prosecuted for practicing the religion of his or her choice. Another important effect that the American Enlightenment had on religion was that it challenged the idea of having a “divine right”. Having a divine right was the common belief that kings and queens had the authority to rule others because they were chosen directly from a deity. Those who followed the principles of the Enlightenment did not believe that anybody had this right because it simply was not logical. This caused many American colonists to question the British king, and could have ultimately contributed to the desire to break away from the British monarchy.

The Enlightenment in America was influenced by many philosophers.
John Locke
Also, the ideas of the enlightenment helped to influence the ideals of the colonists’. One of the philosophers that helped influence the Enlightenment in America was John Locke. Locke had different ideas of individuality and individual rights that went along with the Enlightenment. His ideas also spread over to his views of the government. Locke believed that the government should be separate from the people and the people should still be allowed their individual rights and diversity (Grenda, 2006, p. 596). This idea was violated when the British took the powers away from the colonists. So after the colonists declared independence the ideas of Locke helped to write the constitution (Smith). Not only did the idea of the Enlightenment help dsign the constitution but the same idea helped many philosophers design the Declaration of Independence. Therefore, the Enlightenment helped to influence how the future government of the United States was to be designed.

Benjamin Franklin

The Enlightenment also encouraged individuality with useful knowledge and experimentation (Davidson, 2009, p. 92). So this influenced the education of the colonists and the advancements in new ideas and inventions. One person who was influenced the most by the Enlightenment was Benjamin Franklin. The Enlightenment encouraged him to express his individual ideas to create many different inventions along with other colonial scientists (Davidson, 2009, p. 92). This in turn would have an influence on everyone else in the world as well who would eventually be using what these scientists may have invented.

Overall, the Enlightenment influenced many things in beginning history of America. It was influenced by many different philosophers with the same ideals of independent thought and laws that govern both nature and society (Davidson, 2009, p. 92). The Enlightenment with these philosophers helped to influence the way the colonists thought of government, politics, experiments, knowledge, and religion by encouraging them to think of their own opinions through freedom.
History recalls the Enlightenment as a period of individuality and experimentation. For the first time colonists’ were defying what was considered the norm or Puritan lifestyle. Although the Enlightenment began in Europe it traveled to the new World. Of course, the Enlightenment was not just about new beliefs. Many new experiments defied and changed lives. A factor that made the period so significant was that literacy was no longer a common norm; so many understood what philosophers, theorists, and inventors published. For once the public’s voice mattered, thus a new nation was born.

Authored by: Brittany Arnold, Norman Brown, Kathleen Hauge & Mary Schuttler

Davidson, J. W. (2009). The Mosaic of Eighteenth-Century America. U.S : A Narrative History (1. ed., pp. 81-98). Boston : McGraw-Hill.

Grenda, C. S. (2006). Thinking Historically about Diversity: Religion, the Enlightenment, and the Construction of Civic Culture in Early America. Journal of Church & State, 48(3), 567-600. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Smith, N. (n.d.). The Influence of the Enlightenment on the Formation of the United States. Retrieved March 5, 2011, from