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Era Introduction - Enlightenment

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The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement in Europe during the late 17th century that lasted throughout the 18th and early 19th century. By mid-18th century, there was an American Enlightenment, as well, based on the same skeptical belief system. Primarily a movement of the educated and powerful, it was a reaction against authority, be it ecclesiastical or political. Proponents also encouraged free-thinking and rejection of many of Europe’s social conventions. Some of the most influential personages of the era were considered Enlightenment thinkers and included John Locke, Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and in general a group known as the “Encyclopediasts”. It transcended international boundaries and even had an American version of which Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were perhaps the best known proponents.

The chief “religion” of the Enlightenment was called Deism, a belief system that held that God was like a Great Watchmaker. After creating the universe, He simply let it run of its own, leaving reason to run the affairs of the human race without directly involving Himself. This, of course, flew in the face of the traditional Christianity and the Bible, something that got Thomas Jefferson in trouble with clergy both before and after his presidency. Indeed, Jefferson’s “New Testament” was written by the Monticello sage sans any mention of miracles.

The Enlightenment and its emphasis on social contracts helped to form the basis of first the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution of the United States. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this movement in the face of sometimes harsh criticism and opposition from political and religious leaders. The movement helped to incorporate a treasured constitutional concept–separation of church and state–which is with us today.

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