The Idea of America


The American Enlightenment


The Enlightenment Comes to America

   The Americans, despite their religious background and relative autonomy (growing less by each passing year), were still intimately tied to the English nation. Developments in England, such as the Glorious Revolution, the new scientific methods, and the rise of Parliamentary government, made their way to the colonies as well. The American Enlightenment, which is generally dated from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, was, however, an uneven affair. In part, it involved the exporting of scientific, social, and political ideas from Britain, but also involved the exporting of radical and marginal ideas, such as the republicanism of the "commonwealthmen." In almost all cases, however, the American Enlightenment did not mean the abandonment of the radical Protestant ideas that originally inspired the settlement of America, but started a long process of secularizing these religious ideas. Millenarianism would be caught up in the ideology of republicanism and eventually produce secular ideas such as Manifest Destiny.

The Glorious Revolution in America

   Perhaps the single most important development in England to affect the self-identity of the colonists was the Glorious Revolution of 1688. While this was a profound event for the English, for the colonists it was truly earth-shattering. The colonists had suffered under James II just as profoundly, and perhaps more so, than the English. James had refused to recognized colonial charters, did not allow colonists any say over laws and taxes, and seemed to rule arbitrarily. In many ways, James' treatment of the colonies mirrored his growing independence of the English Parliament. Moreover, James was a Catholic and the colonists were primarily Protestant, most of them radical Protestants. When James issued the Declarations of Indulgence, which granted freedom of worship to Catholics, this pleased Marylanders, but it deeply troubled the rest of the colonies. More ominous to the colonies was the pattern which James seemed to be laying down; all his actions seemed to indicate that he wanted to replace Protestant institutions with Catholic ones. This bode especially ill since France, a Catholic country, had become an absolute monarchy under Louis XIV. In the colonists mind, Catholicism equalled absolutism. This equation was playing itself out: by the time of the Glorious Revolution, over half the governments of the colonies, hithero more or less autonomous, were under the direct control of the monarch.

   News of the Glorious Revolution filtered in slowly and inaccurately to the colonies. The colonists instantly saw the applicability of the Revolution to their situation, and began a series of revolts in 1689. They really had little idea as to what had precisely happened, and when William of Orange became King of England, his orders to the colonies never really made it in a timely manner. Starting first in Boston, and spreading to Plymouth, New York and Maryland, revolts broke out forcing the king's government, the Dominion, to hand power back over to the colonists. The English, for their part, did not see the connection between their revolution and the American reassertion of power over their affairs; most, in fact, were appalled by the 1689 revolutions. An important watershed had been reached, however; the principle of colonial autonomy became the rallying cry of Americans through the eighteenth century.

Political Theories

   The most important political theories in the American Enlightenment were derived from John Locke's Two Treatises on Government and the work of English radical political theorists, particularly a radical republican group called the "commonwealthmen." For the most part, American political thought was an uneasy and confusing mix of Enlightenment thought, Scottish common sense philosophy, English common law, Puritan theology, and the unique experience of colonial life. From the Enlightenment, they derived political ideas mainly from John Locke. They argued, as Locke had done, that when the British government took away their liberties, then the British had effectively dissolved the political bonds tying Americans and British together. However, the political theories of the colonists during the eighteenth century had far more in common with English radicals. Like the radicals, the Americans believed in representation, contractual government, and natural rights. The English radicals, only a minority voice in England, naturally viewed the American colonists as intellectual kin. As a result, English radical thought was distributed in America and American political thought was enthusiastically distributed throughout Britain by the radicals.

   Foremost among the English radical thinkers that influenced American political thought were the "commonwealthmen." This group believed that the monarchy should be abolished in favor of a republic governed by a representative government. They regarded the English Parliament as hopelessly corrupt and opposed parliamentary taxation and the existence of standing armies.

   For its part, the English government found itself in the untried position of developing both the political theory and the political machinery of empire. The British was a new phenomenon; nothing in British history had prepared it to manage a colonial system. The British failed to adequately build either the machinery or the legitimation for empire in regard to the American colonies. To be sure, most British believed that the colonies would eventually break off from Britain; very few expected it to occur in the eighteenth century.

   The British were faced with a difficult task. At the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, the British found themselves saddled with an enormous debt and a costly empire. It was becoming evident that the empire was an enormously expensive affair, and the Seven Years War with France, which largely benefitted the American colonies, was a bitter reminder of that expense. The British raised taxes on themselves to pay off these debts; they also figured that since the colonies had benefitted so greatly from the Seven Years War, that the colonies should also contribute heavily to the costs incurred.

   From a theoretical standpoint, the dilemma facing the British Parliament in the 1760's was this: how do you allow the colonies to retain an adequate level of local autonomy while still exercising central control? All of the legislation and conflicts of the next decade would gravitate around this question; the conflicts would steadily increase and the legislation steadily grew more oppressive until, finally, in 1770, open rebellion broke out in the colonies.

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The American Revolution


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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-2-97