The Philosophy behind the American Revolution Facts & Worksheets

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Student Activities

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    • Who were the notable intellectuals of the Enlightenment period?
    • What are the three main foundational philosophies of the United States which fuelled the American Revolution?

    Key Facts And Information

    Let’s know more about the philosophy behind the American Revolution

    • Intellectuals of the Enlightenment period included Voltaire, Charles Montesquieu, Adam Smith and René Descartes.
    • Liberalism, Republicanism and Conservatism were the three main foundational philosophies of the United States

    Intellectuals with revolutionary ideas

    • There were many thinkers during the Enlightenment period that spanned two centuries. The prominent ones were Voltaire, Charles Montesquieu, Adam Smith and René Descartes.
    • Due to the socio-economic reality at the time, history does not correctly reflect the contribution of women and thinkers from other nations during this period. The thinkers during the Enlightenment period would apply knowledge and develop knowledge of earlier or contemporary thinkers.
    • Below are intellectuals whose ideas and reflections directly shaped American ideology, and fuelled the revolutionary war and the nature of governments formed in the states after Independence.

    John Locke

    • The first was John Locke, who was prominent in the 17th century during the rise of joint-stock companies and the Glorious Revolution in England.
    • In his 1680 work, Second Treaties on Government, Locke contended that all men are born equal with inalienable natural rights that governments cannot purport to take away.
    • He further demonstrated that freemen could willfully decide to give up their inherent rights to a government, abandoning their natural setting, and enter into a society in exchange for the protection of the government.
    • A government must uphold rules of liberty and property, protecting the lives of the citizens and failure to abide by this obligation means that citizens are free to change the government.
    • His work was widely read by Englishmen and Americans, including Thomas Jefferson. He was in turn influenced by Isaac Newton’s work concerning scientific empiricism which was the first to expound on Natural Laws in Science through his work Principles of Natural Philosophy 1687.
    • Locke was also the first to defend women’s
      property rights and their freedom to choose divorce.
    • He condemned slavery as vile and miserable.
    • However, for all his progressive thinking and contribution to human rights, Locke was a hypocrite because he invested in the Royal African Company, which traded slaves, and wrote the Carolina Constitution of 1669, which guaranteed slave owners “absolute power and authority” over their human property.
    • However, his writing was still influential in demonstrating the contradictory principles of the new American government, which declared its Independence citing inalienable rights, and yet suppressed and grossly violated the human rights and dignity of slaves.

    David Hume

    • David Hume, the second philosopher, is acclaimed for the self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence based on the principles of the synthetic and analytic truth. Synthetic truths were matter of fact truths that came to be known as self-evident, deductible by reason. He was friends with Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin.
    • David Hume’s idea provided a shift in understanding human equality as a religious principle rather than as a principle appreciated by reason and founded on the scientific revolution.

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau

    • Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the third main important 18th-century intellectual during the Enlightenment period whose ideas also influenced the American Revolution. He was born in Geneva and was the son of a clockmaker.

    • His works The Social Contract and Emile, a treatise on education, resulted in a lot of controversies causing him to flee Paris to Switzerland. In his works, Rousseau claimed that Christianity was, “the most violent of earthly despotism, even though it instils respect for the law and a devotion to the state;” it is based on “lies and error.” In his political philosophy, he hypothesised that in free societies, people freely enter into a social contract, for the common good, to realise their full potential as rational and moral beings.
    • He empathised with the voluntary notion behind the Social Contract, as opposed to it being an act of submission to a government from the weak members of society and thus not an agreement between the weak and powerful. He also stated that the contract became null and void if there was any force, discrimination or harm towards any member of the society after making the agreement.
    • Even though he had written other works that were considered more accessible to the masses, the Social Contract was the most difficult to comprehend but was also the most popular.
    • In the treaties, he did not reflect on history providing context of present-day social ills; he looked to the future, declaring that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
    • He agreed with Locke that man in his natural state is free.
    • He disagreed with Thomas Hobbes who thought that the natural state of man is savage, solitary brutish and short.
    • Both Locke and Rousseau wrote that freedom was a birthright but for Rousseau “chains” were not a metaphorical reference to the action of the Crown in establishing colonies but for the rules of self-government established through the social contract in
      exchange for conventional notions, rights and duties.
    • Further, the chains were also the dependency on government which Rousseau viewed with much disdain. He also wrote about the dependence of women on men, claiming while men desire women but do not need them, women both desire and need men.
    • In Emile, he advocated for different forms of education for both women and men, writing that women’s education should be towards enabling them to fulfil their desires to be mothers and wives.

    Thomas Paine

    • Last but not least is Thomas Paine, an 18th-century philosopher whose work Common Sense was written for the American audience, who needed to articulate their idea for independence. Common Sense instilled a sense of American identity away from British history and demonstrated the weakness in the British form of government.

    • His work the Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology, propagated the deist philosophy, the idea of the existence of a God, but discounting all supernatural and miraculous accounts of his existence, including the Bible. The Age of Reason was an attack against orthodox Christianity and the church, which Paine believed was too institutionalised and corrupt.
    • The above philosophies evolved into three main ideas that influenced the American Revolution and helped shape early American society.

    Deism: The Watchmaker Analogy

    • Lord Herbert of Cherbury, an English statesman and thinker, was the first, in his 1624 work On Truth, as it is Distinguished from Revelation, the Probable, the Possible, and the False, to outline the basic principles underlying the philosophy of deism. Hebert was responding to the religious strife in England at the time, which led to killings and contestation arising from the Reformation and the execution of King Charles I.
    • The idea that the existence of an item points to a creator was widely spread at the time. However, William Paley (1743-1805) is credited for having developed the watchmaker theory, which explains the existence of God and the relationship between creation and the creator. According to Paley, the marvellous universe indicated the presence of a creator. But God is more impersonal, like the watchmaker who makes and winds the clock and then leaves it to adequately function on laws of nature
      and does not interfere with it.
    • As a result, the existence of God and the understanding of the universe can be achieved by reasoning and not by revelation. This idea was also supported by Thomas Hobbes and further spread by Thomas Paine.


    • As previously noted, John Locke was the mind behind liberalism, the claim that all men have an inherent and God-given “right to property, life, liberty, and to pursue their conception of good.”
    • Thomas Jefferson enabled this thinking by including it in the Declaration of Independence. This is also reflected in the United States Bill of Rights. The first ten amendments to the Constitution outline rights that are founded on the idea of liberalism.


    • Republicanism is the idea that a nation should be ruled as a republic, with the selection of the highest officials of government being chosen by the people during an election as opposed to being a hereditary right.
    • The difference between the liberal thought and republicanism is that rights are not necessarily accorded to man in their natural states, and therefore inherent, but that right is given to all who live in a political society. The understanding of the system in England was contrary to republican values and led many to join the Continental Army under George Washington that fought for the independence of the United States.


    • Conservatism was a reaction opposing the wave of Enlightenment that swept Europe in the 18th century. Fronted by Edmund Burke in 1790, in his reflections of the Revolution in France, Conservatism leans in favour of tradition regarding religious, cultural and nationally accepted beliefs and customs as opposed to allowing radical demands for change. Proponents of conservatism believe that changes ought to be organic and not radical, arguing that instantaneous modification of a complex socio-economic and political system based on doctrine or theory is risky and may lead to unintended consequences. For this reason, conservatism opposed ideals in liberalism and socialism.
    • Conservatism presently refers to right-wing politics which advocate for the preservation of personal wealth and private ownership (capitalism) with an emphasis on self-reliance and individualism.
    • Conservatives are more punitive towards criminals; they tend to be ethnocentric, hostile towards minorities, including sexual minorities, because of their strict application of orthodox religious beliefs.

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