This Age of Rationalism was said to have ended with the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 but the impact of the era lasted beyond its end. The waves of ideas that flowed through the Enlightenment can be seen in many instances in history. The following are some ways the Enlightenment has manifested itself in history.
Other Countries during the Enlightenment
The Revolution in the Americas indicated that, for the first time, some individuals and nations were going beyond the mere discussion of enlightened ideas and were actually putting them into practice. The American Revolution and the documents that came out of it often attacked and criticized existing European regimes.
After much conflict between the 13 colonies of America and England; including the riot against the Stamp Act in 1765; the 1773 Boston Tea Party against an import tax on tea; and rising power in colonial leaders such as Samuel Adams, the colonies decided to take a stand against Britain. The main catalyst in this was the reaction the British took in disapproval of the Boston Tea Party by sending the British navy to close the port of Boston and occupying the city with British troops. On April 9, 1775, American militiamen and British soldiers had an open confrontation in Lexington, Massachusetts with casualties on both sides. With this, the Second Continental Congress of the 13 colonies voted to raise an army under the command of George Washington. The American Revolution has begun.
In July 1776, The Declaration of Independence was signed by a group of colonial leaders. Conveyed in this document were the ideas of John Locke, an English philosophes who believed in the three ideas entitled to humans, Life, Liberty and Property. The prime author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson summed up many of the ideas of the Enlightenment:
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.
The Americans believed that the tyrant, George III, had broken the social contract between the ruler and his people. The social contract of course, was an idea brought about by Rousseau and Locke. Rousseau believed that liberty was every personís natural birthright yet rulers are oppressing many. As people became civilized, the stronger ones emerged from the crowd and forced others to obey unjust rules set by them. Thus, equality and freedom were abolished.
Further more, the Americans were striving for a government where the "general will" of the people was all powerful and where the sovereign is the people.
With the American victory of the Revolution, the Americans went to establish a government. They wrote the Constitution with the help of ideas from the Enlightenment.
The Americans distrusted a central government in which one group or person held all the power. Instead, they relied on the ideas of Montesquieu and created a separation of powers in the government. The three separate branches were the legislative, executive, and judicial. This allowed a system of checks and balances, with each branch checking the actions of the other two.
Once again, the ideas of Locke and Rousseau manifested itself in another extremely significant documentóthe Constitution. Like the beliefs of Locke and Rousseau, the Constitution made certain that the government should draw their authority from the governed. The Constitution preamble in itself sums up the principles of the Enlightenment:
We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America.
Moreover, a Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution to protect the rights of individual citizens against a powerful central government. The Bill of Rights entitled Americans rights such as freedom of speech, religion and press. These were rights that the philosophes of the Enlightenment fought for. The Bill of Rights utilized the ideas of Beccaria to protect people from unnecessary torture in the criminal justice system.
Decline of the Church
The Enlightenment also marked a key stage in the decline of the Church and the growth of modern secularism. The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment move towards the defiance of the beliefs of the church. During the Scientific Revolution, there was an increase of discoveries about the universe, discoveries that were never thought possible before. The church has always held the existence of the geocentric universe to be true. However, with the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, the universe became known to man. The idea that there were divine truths, truths that only God knew, was destroyed.
The scientific method was developed and people began to rely heavily on reason and research rather than believing whatever is presented to you. Francis Bacon, an English philosophes, explained all that hinders humans from new scientific discoveries and encouraged people to challenge deeply rooted beliefs, such as the geocentric universe. And thus, humans were then able to reach beyond what the church gives them credit for. The power of the church slowly declined as a result.
The French Revolution can be seen as a direct result of the social and political ferment of the Enlightenment. The objectives of the revolution were to abolish the Old Regime which gave too much power to the wealthy and degraded the poor. This was in accordance with the humanitarian and democratic beliefs of the Enlightenment. Written in "The French Declaration of the Rights of Man" that all are born equal in rights, nobility and sovereignty included, that the sovereignty comes from the state and that law should be constituted for the people. As with the beliefs of Locke and his 3 natural rights: life, liberty and prosperity, the ideals of the French Revolution was also aimed towards giving people the three rights they are entitled to. Rousseau believed that all people are equal and that the system of social status should be abolished like the beliefs of the poor, who was partly responsible for instigating the Revolution. All in all, the Revolution embodied many of the ideals of the philosophes of the Age of Rationalism.