Colonial And Early American

How Enlightenment Ideas Shaped the us Constitution



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The US Constitution embodied the idealism of the eighteenth century and the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment perpetuated the prominent themes of the Renaissance such as the championing human ability and the concept of natural rights. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment represented a challenge to the status quo. The Renaissance challenged the authority of the Catholic Church over the lives of people. The Enlightenment challenged the authority of kings and promoted the concept that legitimate government comes from the consent of the governed. 

The new political theory that emerged from the Enlightenment was social contract theory. Social contract theory includes the recognition that individuals possess natural rights such as to life, security, and freedom (self-determinism).  Government’s role is to protect the rights of the governed. Government receives the power to enforce its will from the consent of the governed in exchange for protecting the rights of all and providing safety and security. The governed have a legitimate reason to withdraw support and to replace governments that cease fulfill their responsibilities or that become tyrannical. 

Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau explained the role of government as the protector of those rights from the imposition of others. Locke considered government’s role as a protector of rights. Hobbes viewed government as the enforcer to maintain order in society. Rousseau saw government’s role as the mechanism for guaranteeing the liberties of all. 

The writers of the Constitution shared the Enlightenment’s perspective of natural rights namely to life, liberty, and property as popularized by Locke. The writers also borrowed from other Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu and his emphasis on the need for separation of powers and checks and balances in government. The separation of powers was a way to prevent tyranny. 

Not all of the attendees at the Constitutional Convention were supportive of a strong federal government. The supporters of the Constitution and a strong federal government were known as the Federalists. The Federalists held a positive view of the role of government as the defender of the “common good” of all. 

The Anti-Federalists opposed vesting too much power in a federal government. The Anti-Federalists held a starkly different view of government than the Federalists. The Anti-Federalists perceived government as a necessary “evil” to protect the rights of the individual, but government could easily become an obstacle to individual rights.

Both groups held views influenced by the Enlightenment. Both emphasized these views in different ways. The differences were not reconciled at the meeting since many of the Anti-Federalists eventually left the Convention. However, a compromise was reached that in exchange for Anti-Federalist support a Bill of Rights would be added to guarantee that government could not impede on certain specified rights and the power of the federal government would be limited to those enunciated in the Constitution. 

The debate over the size and role of government continues today. Some share the Federalist view that the federal government should attempt to serve the common good by whatever means deemed necessary. Others share the Anti-Federalist belief that individual rights should supersede governmental assumptions of the “common good” and that government represents a potential threat to individual freedom. One could say the Enlightenment continues to influence our interpretation of the Constitution.

More about this author: Robert Grice

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