2.I: The Enlightenment and its Revolutions

democracy revolution

Delacroix’s “Lady Liberty Leading the People” perfectly captures the two flip sides of the Enlightenment and its revolutions. Democracy is one of the most important and inspiring modern institutions. Yet the people’s fight against monarchs and empires threw the world into turmoil for centuries.

A.  What is Enlightenment?

B.  The American Revolution

C.  The French Revolution

D.  The Free World in Incubation

E.  Secularism and Atheism

F.  Citations

A.  What is Enlightenment?

The 18th century is usually called the “Age of Enlightenment” in Europe.  “What is enlightenment?” was the theme of a German essay competition in 1784.  Immanuel Kant’s famous response opened with the motto “Have the courage to use your own understanding” and concluded with “At last, free thought acts even on the fundamentals of government.” 1 In the Enlightenment, the torch of reason that had been ignited in science and mathematics was held up to the church and state.

There was good reason to question authority.  Wealth and power were concentrated in a very small class of monarchs, nobles, and priests.  The power struggles among them held undue sway on the fortunes of ordinary men.  The advent of reason encouraged writers and thinkers (philosophes) to ask if might really makes right.  In the UK, Netherlands and France, philosophes asked bold questions such as, “Can citizens govern themselves?  Should the church be involved in matters of state?  Do monarchs really have a divine right to rule?  In fact, how much about divinity can we really know at all?”

Like the Reformation before it, the Enlightenment spread through literacy.  Books, pamphlets, and newspapers influenced an increasingly important public opinion.  Some of the most widely read Enlightenment writers were Locke in England, Rousseau and Voltaire in France, and Franklin and Paine in the United States.  Denis Diderot supervised publication of France’s great Encyclopedie.  Gathering the nation’s collective knowledge into a single source that could be consulted by everyone, it was created in the same spirit as personal computers and the internet 200 years later.  Meanwhile, amateur philosophes found community in private forums like salons, coffeehouses, and masonic lodges.

Seventeenth century philosophers such as John Locke had provided an inspiring template for ideal government.  Locke wrote about separation of powers, including the church from the state.  He expressed the liberal viewpoint that legitimacy to rule does not come from above but from below.  “Divine right” should be replaced by a “social contract” detailing the “consent of the governed.”  He listed the natural human rights as life, liberty, and property 2 and argued that, if government does not protect these rights, rebellion is justified.  His words were directed backward to the English Civil War, but they reverberated well into the future.

The post-Renaissance public was passionate about applying reason to the political sphere.  Of course, this was easier said than done.  Europe’s traditions were ancient and its dynasties were entrenched.  Most dissidents felt safer meeting in secret to avoid trouble with authorities.  The final key to Enlightenment success was the availability of a new continent on which to test its principles.


B.  The American Revolution

By the 1760s, England’s American colonies felt the strains of imperial oppression.  London had been taxing and regulating colonial trade, without giving colonists votes or seats in Parliament, since the 1660s. 3 Americans had mostly circumvented tariffs with widespread smuggling.  Parliament had imposed increasingly stringent laws to deter smuggling and enforce taxes.  Some of these laws had given courts and the military undue power over citizens, arguably even beyond legal authority.  The pace of this cat-and-mouse game accelerated after the costly French and Indian War (1754 – ’63), when the crown became desperate for revenue.

The Americans’ response to “taxation without representation” went through a significant change of spirit within the next decade.  The first time the colonies assembled together, in the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, their petition to England was a comparatively polite plea that recent taxes were “unconstitutional” according to British law. 1 Nine years later, colonists formed the First Continental Congress as a permanent body to represent their common interests.  This congress included such iconic founding fathers as Washington, Samuel Adams, Hancock, and Henry.  The First Continental Congress issued a Declaration of Resolves, which was the real philosophical turning point of the revolution.  This time around, congress did not appeal to British legal principles, but lay claim to a higher power altogether.  All men, it wrote, have natural rights that no government can take away.  The Declaration of Resolves concluded that a particular set of recent British acts must be repealed for violating natural law.  It is obvious that these representatives had spent the early 1770s steeping themselves in Enlightenment literature.

The conflict soon came to arms.  Rallied by writer Thomas Paine in 1776, the colonies were then swept by a collective decision that England itself had lost legitimacy as a governing body. 4 The Second Continental Congress declared independence that summer, though the Americans and French had to fight for eight years to dislodge the British military from the newly independent nation.

Reconstruction of the USA Second Continental Congress, which proclaimed the Declaration of Independence. Standing: Declaration drafters John Adams, Sherman, Livingston, Jefferson, and Franklin. Seated: President Hancock.

If the American Revolution had been merely about colonies’ independence from an empirical central government, it would have been just another grudge match.  What made it unique was that it stood on liberal principles of democracy, natural rights, and the consent of the governed.  Americans did not replace the old king with a new one.  The United States became the first liberal republic, a country that elects its own rulers.  Congress set about writing a real-life example of a social contract between the people and the government.  The first form of this contract, the Articles of Confederation, was replaced by the current US Constitution in 1787.


C.  The French Revolution

The French Revolution was an attempt to duplicate the American example, and initially it shared many similarities.  France was going bankrupt after its expensive American campaign.  King Louis XVI sought revenue with new taxes on the upper classes, who would have no part of it.  Desperate and on the verge of bankruptcy, the king called a national assembly to reorganize the nation’s finances in 1789.  To everyone’s surprise, the emerging middle class or bourgeois seized control of this assembly and took advantage of the moment to craft a Declaration of Rights and Man (highly inspired by America’s Declaration of Independence) and a new constitution that gave voice to the people.

The execution of Louis XVI by guillotine, icon of the Reign of Terror.

France desperately needed reform.  The king and the upper classes had been exploiting the lower classes unsustainably, and it was a failed state by that time.  However, the country was not ready for such breakneck change.  The rebels had no experience at government.  They alienated the church and threw out entire institutions without forethought about consequences.  Social experiments such as the first constitution failed.  The new “enlightened” government was seized by radicals called Jacobins, who took the extreme measure of executing Louis XVI.    Before too long, there was a growing backlash from counter-revolutionary conservatives.  France was plunged into civil war.  The Jacobin party engaged in a hideous Reign of Terror, murdering tens of thousands of political opponents.

The monarchs of Europe, terrified of this revolutionary mania, intervened to control it and to try restoring the Bourbon Dynasty in France.  This led to a series of French Revolutionary Wars involving England, Russia, the Holy Roman Empire, and other nations.  By the end of the 1790s, the entire continent was traumatized and in turmoil.

One profound effect of the revolution and its wars was a sense of nationalism among French citizens.  For the first time, they were fighting for themselves rather than for a king.  They began to identify themselves with the French nation-state.  The military grew stronger, not only because of governmental reforms but also because of the soldiers’ fervor.

This was the tide that brought Napoleon to power in 1799.  A career soldier who had risen through the ranks of the army, he led a coup against the fractured government and declared himself the new emperor.  He proscripted a national army into the most powerful military force the world had ever seen, save perhaps for the British navy.  He then began a campaign of French expansionism.  His objectives were to secure France to its “natural borders”, to eliminate the belligerent governments around him, and even, ironically, to spread liberalism by force.  He had a powerful effect on the peoples nearby.  Inspired by the French spirit, they too caught the fever of nationalism.  By necessity, it had to be a militaristic nationalism so they could defend themselves.  By 1815, an allied coalition was finally able to capture Napoleon.  France, like the rest of Europe, fell under monarchical rule once again – but the seeds of democracy had been sown.


D.  The Free World in Incubation

The American and French Revolutions were the first major experiments in nationalism and liberal democracy.  With such mixed results, they left the rest of the world in a state of confusion for the next century.

For European conservatives, the French Revolution demonstrated that liberal ideals led to chaos and violence.  The theory was that only an absolute dictator could organize the military well enough to defend the realm.  After Napoleon was defeated, Austria, Prussia, and Russia formed a Holy Alliance committed to keeping monarchs on thrones and quelling revolutions.

That did not keep liberalism from spreading underground.  There were a series of revolutions through the 19th century, peaking in the Spring Of Nations in 1848 – ’49.  Nationalists sought unity and independence from foreign rule.  Nobles fought for a greater share of state control from monarchs, while the middle and working classes sought equality with nobles.  Liberals fought for self-rule.  Nationalism was much more successful than democracy.  By 1900, several new nations were on the map, including Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Serbia. 5 Only Switzerland, France, and Portugal were republics by the eve of WWI.

Liberal reforms continued piecemeal through the continent.  Some countries adopted an English-style constitutional monarchy, where the king’s power was limited by the rule of law or parliament.  Others adopted the Napoleonic Code, which had pulled France out of chaos.  Napoleon had created the modern systems of state bureaucracy and public education as we still know them today. 6

By 1825, almost all of Latin America had claimed independence from Spain and Portugal.  Most of the new South American nations of the 19th century aspired to republicanism, but they set up weak governments easily exploited by small wealthy classes or military leaders.  Even the enlightened South American liberator, Simon Bolivar, became an unpopular autocratic ruler. 7 Civil wars were common.

In the United States, too, the coherence of the nation was threatened by a massive civil war.  The central conflict was the balance of power between individual states and the federal government, especially on the issues of slavery and trade.  Abraham Lincoln made it his mission to keep the country together.  He was deeply concerned that if the United States fell apart, it would prove democracy unworkable.  His famous Gettysburg address concludes, “we here highly resolve that … government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” 8

Between the Civil War and WWI, the US made significant political changes.  The 13th – 17th constitutional amendments demonstrated the trends toward truer democracy and a stronger central government. 2 The nation began to assume a more uniform identity.  This led directly to a more peaceful, prosperous, and powerful union.

Most articles about the Enlightenment end with the French Revolution. 9 This is a narrow definition of the Enlightenment, referring to the period when it was the ascendant philosophical trend.  It was a permanent turning point, and in fact its influence only continues to grow.


E.  Secularism and Atheism

Besides statecraft, the other important legacy of the Enlightenment was the application of reason toward religion.  Prior to the 18th century, the whole world was religious but for isolated places, times, and individuals.  The Enlightenment sparked a complete revolution in the way educated people think about religion.

The decline of religion in the West has occurred in at least four phases, some of which were discussed in Chapter 3.  First was the challenge to the Catholic Church’s monopoly on Christian practice. 10 Some American states, and then the US, were the first secular governments with no state religion at all.  The second phase was recognition of an incompatibility between scientific and religious thought, as spearheaded by Spinoza.  These philosophical matters alone did not cause any widespread doubts about God’s existence before the 1700s.

The third and most significant phase was a centuries-long flood of scientific observations.  Major breakthroughs such as evolution, atomic chemistry, and cosmology cast serious doubts on mythological models of the universe.  Some findings conflicted directly with scripture:  Earth and life were formed over billions of years, not in one week a few thousand years ago.  More subtly, science continued to replace supernatural assumptions with natural explanations.  Through medieval times, it was perfectly acceptable to “explain” almost any event by saying that some god, spirit, or demon wanted it to happen.  Now Newton had shown how planetary motion was determined automatically by gravity.  Like clockwork, celestial bodies did not require divine will.  Scientists continued to make such discoveries, a few big ones and countless small ones.   By the 1800s, it had become commonplace understanding that unconscious or “inert” particles and forces of nature can account for incredibly complex phenomena, including life functions.  Even the greatest mysteries of science follow long chains of natural explanations.  All the while, there is still no convincing theory of what spirits would be or how they would influence the physical world with willpower.  Carrying these thoughts through to their logical end, atheism is the belief that nature is completely self-contained, and that supernatural causes are only an illusion, a product of human imagination.

The fourth phase of atheism, of which this book is a part, is the psychology of that imagination – the study of how and why the human mind thinks religiously.  The illusion of the supernatural is compelling.  Each one of us is a conscious purposeful being, so our minds project that quality onto everything around us:  “The whole universe must be conscious and purposeful, just like me!”  Animism is the default, instinctive outlook, and it takes difficult training in science to see past it.  Religious thought, despite its fallacies, is simple and comforting.  It is easy for children to believe, and religion will persist as long as parents teach it to their children.

Whether it’s right or wrong, atheism has always carried a strong stigma. 11 It started to become socially acceptable only in small intellectual circles by the 1770s. 12 Most conservatives still refuse to consider it.  Religion is one of the essences that defines a nation or community, so breaking away from the common religion is regarded as suspicious and disloyal.  Religion can also keep order, especially through fear of God’s punishment.  The concern was that, without such fear, atheists would have no incentive to behave morally.  It was especially alarming when malevolent political regimes banned religious practices, creating a distasteful association between atheism and totalitarianism.  To the contrary, today’s least religious countries are among the wealthiest and most peaceful. 13 Righteous behavior can be enforced by law or by reputation in the community.

Secular legal systems have had to deal with the fascinating question of “why” proscribed activity is immoral.  Some moral values have persisted not because they are inherently noble but simply because they reproduce successfully in the meme pool.  A culture that sent its women to war while the men stayed home and had sex with each other would die out pretty quickly.  We do not have these values, simply because we could not possibly have inherited them from ancestors.  But does that make it “immoral” for women to serve in combat, or for gay men to be honest about their sexuality?  Are these matters of brute survival still relevant in today’s world?  These are questions that are still being worked out in courts of law and public opinion.

Most post-enlightenment religions have downplayed ancient mythology.  New Age religion vaguely associates God with “the universe”.  Conspiracy theorists blame evil on secret societies of the rich and powerful.  This continuous updating of religious thought shows that faith and superstition are unquenchable instincts.

Return to Chapter 2

Continue to Section 2.II: Industry


F.  Citations

  1. Kant, Immanuel, “What is Enlightenment?” trans. Peter Gay, Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1954), pp. 1071 – 76.
  2. Locke, John (1689 / 1988 ed). Laslett, Peter, ed. Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press. Sec. 87, 123, 209, 222. ISBN 052135448X.
  3. Unger, Harlow, John Hancock, Merchant King and American Patriot, 2000, ISBN 0-7858-2026-4, p. 87.
  4. Paine encouraged Americans to break free of England in his tract Common Sense, published January, 1776.  That April, George Washington wrote, “I find Common Sense is working a powerful change … in the minds of many men.”  George Washington to Joseph Reed, 4/01/1776, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, ed. Abbott, Chase, and Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985 – 1998) Vol. IV, p. 11.
  5. Euratlas, “Periodis Web – A historical atlas and gazetteer of Europe from Year 1 to 2000,” http://www.euratlas.net/history/europe/ (accessed 9/23/15)
  6. Markham, J. David, “The Revolution, Napoleon, and Education”, http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/society/c_education.html#17 (accessed 9/20/15)
  7. Simón Bolívar.Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (accessed 9/23/15)
  8. Lincoln, Abraham, “Gettysburg Address”, spoken on November 19, 1863 and often reprinted.  Public domain.
  9. See e.g. History.com, http://www.history.com/topics/enlightenment and Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment.
  10. Geoffrey Blainey; A Short History of Christianity; Viking; 2011
  11. Armstrong, Karen (1999). A History of God. London: Vintage. p. 288. ISBN 0-09-927367-5.
  12. Wigelsworth, Hudson, Lucci (editors), Atheism and Deism Revalued, https://books.google.com/books?id=mxWdBQAAQBAJ , pp. xx  (accessed 9/27/15)
  13. Barber, Nigel, “Atheism to defeat religion by 2038”, Huffington Post, 6/05/12, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nigel-barber/atheism-to-defeat-religion-by-2038_b_1565108.html (accessed 9/27/15)
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