The ideas of justice, freedom, and prosperity that come to mind when we talk about the Western world – especially America – are products of the Age of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason. This was an intellectual movement in the 17th and 18th centuries that eventually led to the American Revolution.
The Age of Enlightenment: A Primer
In 1637, French philosopher Rene Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am” in his book Discourse on Method. The idea is that his existence cannot be doubted since he is the individual doubting in the first place.
The thinkers of the time, from Francois Voltaire to Immanuel Kant to John Locke, put forward the core principles of Enlightenment: individual liberty, the separation of church and state, religious tolerance, progress, and constitutional government. These should sound very familiar to Americans.
A Nation Is Born
“That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights … namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
The Declaration of Independence says:
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
A Few Good Men
Who were the leaders of the American Enlightenment? Here are a few good men:
- Thomas Paine: An English writer and philosopher who is best known for his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, material that advocated American independence.
- George Mason: A member of the Virginia House of Burgesses representing Fairfax County who has been considered the father of the Bill of Rights.
- Benjamin Franklin: A polymath statesman and Founding Father.
- Thomas Jefferson: The third U.S. president was the author of the Declaration of Independence. He also made notable contributions to the Constitution.