“Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to his nephew in 1787. Thomas Jefferson and the other early writers of the American colonies, understood the ideals behind the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was, by definition, “a movement of intellectuals who popularized science and applied reason to human affairs” (Bishop 301). Reason – that, oh-so taken for granted trait that sets humans apart from the other primates – was the driving force behind the Age of Enlightenment, the impetus behind the movement’s key values, and is clearly seen in the United States Declaration of Independence.
The Age of Enlightenment began in the marketplace of ideas. As nobles rubbed elbows with the middle class in the salons of Paris (Bishop 301); as the upper and lower classes mingled in the coffeehouses of England (Jurich 5); as the ideas of the one were shared with the other and vice versa, “new ideas percolated” through them both (Bishop 301). Just as the “exploration and colonization” of the New World widened their physical horizons, this exposure to new people widened the horizons of the mind. The philosophy behind the Enlightenment was largely “[i]nspired by the Scientific Revolution” resulting in an increase in “intellectual inquiry” (301).
This newfound increase in questions and the tool of Science with which to answer them led to many key values, three of which were: 1) the belief that “politics and history” follow natural, universal laws just as gravity does; 2) the understanding that reason could bring a “prosperity” that superstitious beliefs could not; and 3) an understanding that the “chief barrier to human progress and happiness was not human nature,” as was taught by the Christian faith, but rather “social intolerance and injustice” (301).
The Declaration of Independence, the paper that formally severed ties between the thirteen colonies and their overseas oppressor, is a document which embraces these ideals of Enlightenment. With language such as “Laws of Nature” (retrieved from ushistory.org) regarding the rights of the people, the writers reveal their belief that politics are governed by natural, universal laws, not just the laws put in place by men. By the fact of their parting with the King, who the Christian church taught was appointed by God (Romans 13:1 “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” NKJV), the writers revealed that they understood the second key value: reason trumps religious superstition. They did not see a god appointed king. They saw a king who was not doing his job. They looked at the facts, applied reason to their situation, and decided that a merit based, rather than religiously based, government would bring the colonies greater prosperity. They revealed their understanding of the third value with the famous sentence: “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” (ushistory.org). The traditional belief was that human nature, being corrupt, needed to be ruled by one appointed by god, be that a religious leader such as the Pope or a civic leader such as a king. The writers of the Declaration of Independence believed, in accordance with the Enlightenment, that the impediments to happiness, success, prosperity, and progress, rested not in a fundamental flaw in humans but in the flaws of the systems surrounding them. They understood that injustice, inequality, intolerance, and ignorance were the obstacles that needed to be overcome. It is clear from this early American document that its writers were writing in agreement with Enlightenment philosophy.
The Enlightenment had many impulses and factors affecting its development but the primary force was reason. It was reason that led to the Age of Enlightenment, reason which formed the key values, and reason that led Thomas Jefferson and others to draft the Declaration of Independence. As Benjamin Franklin said, “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason,” and it is clear from the Declaration of Independence, that was not an option.
Bishop, Philip E. Adventures in the Human Spirit. 6th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2011.
Declaration of Independence. 24 October, 2010. <http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/>.
Franklin, Benjamin. Poor Richard’s Almanack. 1758. 24 October, 2010. <http://atheistempire.com/greatminds/gmtext2.html#BenjaminFranklin>.
Jefferson, Thomas. 1787. Letter to his nephew. 24 October, 2010. <http://atheistempire.com/greatminds/quotes.php?author=2>.
Jurrich, Nick. Espresso: From bean to cup. Seattle, WA: Missing Link Press, 1991.