Enlightenment, American

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A tradition in political thought imported to revolutionary America particularly by Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and Paine. Jefferson drew on both the French and the Scottish Enlightenment; Paine especially on French Enlightenment and revolutionary thought. However, they did more than simply import Enlightenment ideas and views to America; they modified and applied them. In the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Jefferson, in the Constitution, and in the Bill of Rights, which was due among others to Jefferson (who had promulgated the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom on which the First Amendment was modelled) and Madison, American Enlightenment thought went beyond its teachers to produce documents that survive to this day. Jefferson also had a role in reimporting the Enlightenment to France. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, still incorporated in the modern French constitution (see also constitution), is in part an American statement of rights and in part a Rousseauvian statement of citizenship.

In the early nineteenth‐century United States there was a reaction against the secular tone of Enlightenment thought. Jefferson had been a religious agnostic, but with a high opinion of Jesus as an ethical teacher, and Paine an antichristian deist. In the religious reaction that followed, Paine died in poverty and obscurity and Jefferson in his last years retreated to ‘the consolations of a sound philosophy, equally indifferent to hope and fear’.

Subjects: Politics.

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