The Growth of American Thought

By Merle Curti | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII The Expanding Enlightenment

The foundation of our Empire was not laid in a gloomy age of ignorance and superstition, but at an epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period: Researches of the human mind after social happiness have been carried to a great extent; the treasures of knowledge acquired by the labours of philosophers, sages, and legislators, thro' a long succession of years, are laid open for use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the establishment of our forms of government.

-- GEORGE WASHINGTON, 1783

Though challenged at every point, the ideas of the Enlightenment nevertheless gained ground during the war years and in the decades that followed. Not until the last years of the century, when Federalism dominated the political and in a large measure the intellectual life of the land, did the Enlightenment face a really serious threat. Only then was it doubtful whether the philosophy of natural rights, deism, humanitarianism, the idea of progress, and faith in natural science would survive the conservative onslaught. Even the conservative reaction that set in at this time and continued to affect many aspects of American life after the triumph of political liberalism in 1800 did not strike the death knell of the Enlightenment itself.

The advance of the Enlightenment may be understood partly in terms of the favorable soil provided by the American Revolution. The natural rights philosophy was put to work not only to justify the revolt against England but also to give sanction to the efforts of shopkeepers, artisans, and small farmers to obtain political privileges from the dominant propertied groups. Hard pressed by the still ascendant commercial creditor class and irritated by the survival of undemocratic privileges in the new constitution of Massachusetts, small farmers rallied around Daniel Shays in 1786 and defied the ruling authorities. The rebellion itself was put down. The agrarians every-

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