What was the impact of the Age of Enlightenment?

The Age of Enlightenment was in vogue during the 18th century, but its watermark still lingers on many of the world's most important documents. In fact, without it, the United States as we know it would likely not exist today. While visiting Europe, many of the nation's founding fathers rubbed elbows with great Enlightenment thinkers, bringing their ideas and values back across the Atlantic.

But how did the Enlightenment movement start? Different factors spurred it on, such as the clout of the Church and State and the power struggle between them, as well as the Western discovery of new societies with radically different cultural traditions and norms. Many intellectuals also felt discontented with the fixed social striations among their own collectives, and angry at their governments' unwillingness to grant personal rights.


All of this gave way to a cultural revolution that promoted new ideas and values concerning philosophical, economic and political debates. Growing skepticism in the absolute authority of both monarchy and church sowed the seeds for a revolution (actually, several) that focused on individualism, freedom, self-determination and other agents of change. Democracy and equality were of great importance to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, who were dissatisfied with the mooching and prestige of the aristocratic social tier.

The effect of all this would having a lasting impact on the face of the world as we know it. Find out how on the next page.


The Effect of the Age of Enlightenment

The document that gave birth to a new nation: the Declaration of Independence
Tom Grill/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

The Age of Enlightenment influenced many legal codes and governmental structures that are still in place today. The idea for the three branch system outlined in the U.S. Constitution, for example, was the brainchild of Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. A huge proponent of the Enlightenment, Montesquieu suggested the theory of the separation of powers in order to obtain a political system of checks and balances, promoting order and equality.

Principles of the Enlightenment also featured heavily in the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Consider, for example, Thomas Jefferson's call to action in the Declaration of Independence: He demands the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, while denouncing the British government for not granting the colonies equal representation.


Enlightened thinkers believed that when a people consent to be governed, it is with the implicit expectation that their government will act in the name of their common good. Failing that obligation means the people have the right to overthrow their government and install one that will successfully look out for their best interests. In making his case, Jefferson cited actions committed by George III that he felt clearly demonstrated how England had failed the colonies. These included cutting off trade opportunities, imposing taxes without consent, denying people trial by jury, waging war against colonial towns, and other actions Jefferson and the Continental Congress perceived as tyranny.

When it came to the Bill of Rights, James Madison also took a page straight from the Enlightenment playbook when he included such basic personal liberties as the right to freedom of speech, religion and assembly.

France is another country whose revolution was sparked (at least in part) by the fiery passions stirred up during the Age of Enlightenment. In 1789, the French revolted and issued a declaration of rights demanding liberty and equality, among others. In fact, the upheaval of the Age Enlightenment would ripple around the world, and not just in political arenas. Science, culture and the arts were influenced heavily by the ideals and values of the Age of Enlightenment, and other nation's wars for independence from colonial rulers, such as those in South America, were soon to follow.


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  • Brians, Paul. "The Enlightenment." May 18, 2000. (5/25/2010) http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/enlightenment.html
  • "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen." Human Constitutional Rights Documents. Aug. 26, 1789. (5/25/2010) http://hrcr.law.columbia.edu/docs/frenchdec.html
  • "Lecture: The Enlightenment and the Romantic Era." The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. http://www.stockton.edu/~fergusoc/romantic/romantic.htm
  • "Baron de Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Jan. 20, 2010. (5/25/2010) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/montesquieu/
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  • Madison, James. "Bill of Rights." The National Archives. Sept. 25, 1789. (5/25/2010) http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights.html
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