Enlightenment Influences on American Politics:
Written by Shad Mickelberry on February 19, 2009
Throughout our schooling we are taught about the great accomplishments of the Founding Fathers; however, we rarely learn about the thinkers that influenced them. The American Revolution occurred during the height of the Enlightenment era. In turn, influences of the Enlightenment are prevalent throughout our political system and philosophy. Two of the most prominent figures of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, had a profound impact on the American political system. Kant’s influence on American politics is most notably reflected in the freedoms granted in the Constitution, while Rousseau’s social contract theory influenced the role government plays in society.
Kant’s “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” first appeared in publication in 1784 only a few years before the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. With the statements “Have courage to make use of your own understanding! is thus the motto of enlightenment” and “For this enlightenment, however, nothing is required but freedom”, Kant reveals the value he places on personal freedom (Allison 600-601). There is no doubt the Framers were well read in Kant’s work; thus, we can draw inference to his influence on the authors of these documents.
We hear rhymes of Kant’s philosophy throughout the Bill of Rights; however, his imprint is most profound in the First Amendment. The Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (United States. amend. I). Being the first words of the first amendment, the importance of freedom of religion to the Framers is consistent with Kant’s in his admission that “I have put the main point of enlightenment…chiefly in matters of religion” (Allison 603).
In addition to freedom of religion, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. Again, Kant’s influence is evident in his belief that one should have “freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters” (Allison 601). Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are just two examples of Kant’s impact on the Bill of Rights. Yet they provide solid evidence of his far reaching influence on the document and, by extension, the fabric of American political idealism. While reflections of Kant’s writings are mirrored in our rights of freedom, Rousseau’s impact on American politics is most profound in the role government plays in our society.
Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” is one of the most profound and influential writings of the Enlightenment period. In “The Social Contract”, Rousseau reasons that a civil society should be looked upon as a relationship among all of the members of that society. Rousseau summed up his view on social contract as “the complete transfer of each associate, with all his rights, to the whole community” (Allison 590). Moreover, Rousseau refers to the government as “a moral and collective body” which “collectively take the name of people” (Allison 591). What Rousseau is saying here is that society is a pact among all of its members, government consists of members of that society, and that government serves at the will of the people. These ideals are the benchmarks of American political theory.
Many of the most integral figures of American History have reflected Rousseau’s philosophy in their speech. For example, Lincoln closes the Gettysburg Address with “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” (Lincoln). Furthermore, James Madison set forth his views on this topic with the following, “That there be prefixed to the constitution a declaration–That all power is originally vested in, and consequently derived from the people” (Madison First Amend.). Lastly, no other example better exemplifies the influence of Rousseau’s social contract theory on our society than the beginning of the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more
perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide
for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the
Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and
establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (United States Const. Preamble)
We see here that the Constitution begins essentially as a declaration of a social pact consistent with the philosophy of Rousseau. Within these examples the reach of Rousseau’s impact on American history becomes transparent.
When reading works of the Enlightenment, we see how extensively this period influenced American society and politics. Some of most cherished freedoms seem to have been born out of Kant’s philosophy, while Rousseau’s theories helped form the basis of our social order. Credit should not be taken away from our Founding Fathers for the work they did; however, it’s important to keep in mind that these great men drew their knowledge from passed thinkers.
Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”. The Longman Anthology Of World Literature Vol D 2nd Edition. April Alliston. Pearson, 2009. 599-604.
Lincoln, Abraham. “The Gettysburg Address”. 19 Nov. 1863. Library of Congress. 13 Feb. 2009 <http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/gadd/images/Gettysburg-2.jpg>.
Madison, James. “Proposed Amendments to the Constitution”. 8 Jun. 1789. James Madison University. 13 Feb. 2009. <http://www.jmu.edu/madison/center/main_pages/madison_archives/constit_confed/rights/jmproposal/jmspeech.htm>
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “The Social Contract”. The Longman Anthology Of World Literature Vol D 2nd Edition. April Alliston. Pearson, 2009. 587-592.
United States. National Archives and Records Administration. The Bill of Rights. 13 Feb. 2009. <http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights_transcript.html>.
United States. United States Government Printing Office. 1 Nov. 1996. The Constitution of the United States of America. 13 Feb. 2009. <http://www.gpoaccess.gov/constitution/html/conart.html>