The Enlightenment Period

The Philosophes

How did the Enlightenment affect the United States?

America did not develop its own philosophical tradition until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the period before the American Revolution and the founding of the new republic, the excitement of liberty from oppressive government, the dignity of the individual, and rights to private property were all highly motivating ideas.

These optimistic ideas were inspirational in the writings of Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others. The American separation of Church from state, as an article of individual liberty—against oppressive government religion, and for free thought and speech—came directly from Enlightenment ideas, as did the division of the powers of government and the distrust of government.

It should be noted, however, that libertinism and outright atheism were to remain European phenomena for a very long time. Under the inspiration of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), American Protestant religious philosophy flourished in the late eighteenth century in a New England Born-Again movement known as “the Great Awakening.”


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