Why the “American Enlightenment” Succeeded, and How it Might Fail

Who hasn’t noticed that current trends have been leading us away from human happiness? We will be better prepared to make the desperately needed corrections if we recapture the forgotten power of the American idea offered in Robert Curry’s Common Sense Nation. Curry introduces us to the English, French, Scottish, and American Enlightenment. That will equip us to distinguish between the path that leads to ordered liberty and the other path that is now leading us toward chaos.

The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers are American Enlightenment documents. The founders are not only the architects of our system of government, they are the authors of a grand philosophical enterprise: the American experiment. We will be looking at four philosophical currents that helped shape events in the 17th and 18th century and continue to bedevil public policy today: the English, French, Scottish, and American Enlightenments. 

John Locke’s contribution to the English Enlightenment marked an historic break with the past. In 1683 he sealed his fate, to be hunted as an enemy of the monarch when he dared to write, “The supreme power in every commonwealth [is] but the joint power of every member of the society.” We may ask, why the outrage? Because, his declaration would transfer the king’s authority to the king’s subjects. His teachings also endorsed the consent of the governed, and granted subjects the right to rebel. Locke’s political theory set Western society’s sights on individual liberty.

Locke’s writing inspired two revolutions with sharply contrasting outcomes. The outcomes and their causes are of great importance as the same forces are contending for power here and now. The French thinker, Voltaire, concluded from Locke [and Isaac Newton] that unassisted reason—that is, reason hostile to faith and tradition—could provide humanity with answers to every question. French philosophes embraced that optimistic view of unassisted reason with disastrous results. Their deep antagonism to religion, their relentless attacks on social inequality, and above all their belief in the malleability of human nature collided with the reality of man’s unyielding nature. The bloodshed and atrocities of the French Revolution and the Terror were the bitter fruit of many factors. Prominent among them was their dedication to “unassisted human reason” and the similarly degrading notion that the mind of man is a blank slate.

The French way of reasoning was reflected in the way educated Frenchmen looked upon their fellow countrymen. They looked down on ordinary people whom they felt did not possess and were incapable of acquiring sufficient reason. Their minds beginning as “blank slates” had not and could not be cultivated. They were the “rabble,” incredibly stupid and therefore to be held in contempt. How different from Thomas Jefferson’s amazing comparison of the mental acuity of the ploughman compared to the professor: “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” How different too is Jefferson’s belief that “all men are created equal [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . . . .” From where did those notions arise?

Locke’s theory of the mind drew the attention of Scottish scholars who were distressed by his formulation. Because Locke regarded the mind as a blank slate at birth, his work offered no foundation for moral judgments. Several Scottish thinkers set out to supply that essential element. Scotland during the 17th and 18th centuries was a desperately poor country inhabited by a notably pious people. It is worth noting that for them, knowledge of right and wrong was a necessity as was each child’s ability to read the Bible in order to fulfill his earthly obligations. The state provided funds so that by 1700 every parish had a schoolhouse and a paid teacher. The Scots were a highly literate society, a gifted and capable people. Their unique intellectual background was the source of their now forgotten contributions to the advancement of man and Western civilization.

The Scottish Enlightenment was an amazing burst of intellectual, scientific and technological genius that reached its peak in the decades before the American Revolution. It included a stellar cast, some of whom came from humble backgrounds. Thomas Reid developed the concept of common sense realism, a new way of understanding how man comes to have knowledge of any sort. The changes he made to Locke’s theory of the mind set Western civilization on a new and much improved journey toward a more fulfilling life. Reid explained “that the mind is not blank but comes equipped with a . . . power of judgment [called] common sense.” For Reid, common sense is the attribute which sets us apart from the animal kingdom and makes it possible for us to act as rational beings and as moral agents.

Reid pointed out that human beings are simply moral agents. We hold ourselves and others to moral standards. And we begin doing so almost as soon as we can talk. Reid was motivated to take up this line of inquiry because of moral concerns: to be able to defend piety, patriotism, friendship, parental affection, and private virtue. Abstract reason, lacking an anchor, is of little use in the defense of these sentiments.

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Jefferson and Locke and The Declaration of Independence

It is frequently said that Jefferson’s frame of reference was Lockean, and indeed it was, in a broad sense. To Locke goes the credit for breaking out of the medieval mindset which combined church and state in support of the monarch claiming privileges by divine right. But in this case conventional wisdom is exaggerated. Jefferson’s frame of reference included the groundbreaking period in intellectual history few of us have ever heard of, the Scottish Enlightenment.

The Scottish scholars saw their task as correcting the deficiency in John Locke’s understanding of the mind as a blank slate. A blank slate has no mechanism for determining what is right or what is true and therefore could easily be led astray. By developing common sense realism the Scots were advancing the liberating work Locke had begun by furnishing the missing element: the basis for moral judgments.

The framers affirmed that all people are created equal and that equality of persons is “self-evident,” that it is one of the self-evident truths of common sense. It is important to note that although some self-evident truths are immediately obvious—if you stand out in the rain you will get wet—others must be discovered over time. The idea that people are created equal was not apparent in a world dominated by royal dynasties and the nobility. The truth had to be discovered through observation and experiment carried out over centuries. But once understood, it was self-evidently true. Today self-evident truth and even truth itself is routinely turned on its head by postmodernism.

For the founders the primary purpose of government was the preservation of our unalienable rights. Thomas Sowell has remarked,“Those who founded the USA and wrote the Constitution saw property rights as essential for safeguarding all other rights. . . . Property rights are legal barriers to politicians, judges or bureaucrats arbitrarily seizing the assets of some human beings to transfer those assets to other human beings.” Curry summarizes: “The authors of our liberty understood that our rights are nearly infinite in number. Here then is the rock upon which our benefactors built the idea of limited government. Government is necessarily limited government because its reach is defined by the vast field of liberty reserved for its citizens.” The extent of our inability to govern as a free people becomes self-evident as we continue this important analysis.

This idea is also echoed in Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, when he stated that “All constitutions [forms] of government . . . are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them.” According to the founders, the government’s legitimate purpose of preserving our unalienable rights has a social test: the happiness of the society the government serves. Presently, our political leadership seems to be falling short of securing our happiness, despite all their impressive credentials. 

George Washington told his fellow countrymen: “The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but in an epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than in any former period; the researches of the human mind [looking for] social happiness have been carried to a great extent, the treasures of knowledge . . . are laid out for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the establishment of our forms of government.” Chief among the “treasures of knowledge” Washington referred to was the Scottish understanding of human nature. It is a way of seeing man and his place in the world that made perfect sense to pioneers as they struggled to carve out a new life on a new continent.

Historian Arthur Herman claims that “Common Sense Realism was virtually the official creed of the American Republic.” He continues “The power of common judgment [common sense] belongs to everyone, rich or poor, educated or uneducated; indeed, we exercise it every day in hundreds of ways. Of course, ordinary people make mistakes—but so do philosophers.” Adding that, “On some things, however, like the existence of the real world and basic moral truths, they know they don’t have to prove it. These things are . . . self-evident, meaning they are ‘no sooner understood than they are believed’ because they ‘carry the light of truth itself.”’ Sentiments such as these elevate the standing of the common man.

The American colonists knew that common sense judgments are exercised every day. Pioneers had no reason to doubt as to the self-evident existence of the trees that needed to be cleared or the water that had to be hauled. Basic moral truths, too, were clearly self-evident to their way of thinking. Our founders had no patience with the French philosophes who claimed that unassisted reason, cut loose from faith or tradition, can be the sole guide to human conduct. Scottish scholars insisted that human reason is able to function as a guide to human conduct only when grounded in the moral sense. And further, that we are equipped with common and moral sense just as we are equipped with the senses of taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch. We are simply made that way.

Common sense is reflected in prudent conduct. Thomas Reid recognized that as we gain in common sense we move along the path of self-mastery. As we gain in self-mastery we move along the path of self-rule. The framers of our political system applied this insight to their own political theory with world-transforming results. It is hard for us to recognize what a leap of faith was required in the latter half of the 18th century for anyone to claim that men who are capable of personal self-rule by common sense are also capable of political self-rule by common sense. 

The publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 mark the economic and political boundary between the world in which you and I live and all that went before. It marks the movement from the static world with little social or economic mobility to the world of ever-increasing opportunities for specialization and expansion of trade that led to the prosperity of an ever increasing populace.

Until roughly the 18th century legally held property was in the form of land held in trust by the eldest son of the family to be passed on to the eldest son in the successive generation, unless it or a portion of it was lost at a gaming table or other risky ventures. Property was essentially static in the world of aristocracy. In this way inherited wealth and the political order were secured. Inherited power and privilege kept the world of master and serf intact. The accumulation of gold and silver stored in the royal counting house was regarded as wealth. Since usury was generally prohibited, that form of wealth could not increase in value without raising taxes. It was Adam Smith and his countrymen (among others) who developed a new way of looking at wealth and property.

Smith popularized a dynamic view of property, what we know today as free market capitalism.

Unencumbered by a feudal past, early settlers were able to develop a new system of legally titled property that was open to all settlers. It was an unprecedented arrangement that laid the groundwork for America to become the world’s economic dynamo. 

This arrangement emerges spontaneously over time. Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson explained how most institutions develop. He wrote in 1767, “nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design . . . the establishments of men . . . arose from successive improvements that were made, without any sense of their general effect.” They are, he added, “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.” They evolve, having arisen by the process of trial and error conducted by many people dispersed over space and acting over the generations, Curry notes. It is a process of organic evolution.

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Sorting out the Impacts of the Enlightenments  

Once we distinguish variations in the Enlightenments’ goals and their ability (or lack thereof) to promote human happiness we can better appreciate the founders’ choices. The French and the Scottish/American thinkers held opposing views of the concept of reason and different attitudes toward everyday people. In general, the educated Frenchman viewed his fellow countrymen as hopelessly ignorant and incapable of improvement. The “rabble” were hopelessly deficient in their ability to reason. 

How different from Thomas Jefferson’s amazing comparison of the ploughman with the professor and his ringing declaration that “all men are created equal [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” These are the thoughts of a man who regards his fellow man as created in the image of God and therefore of infinite value. Unlike the French thinkers, those tutored in moral and common sense acknowledge our shared humanity that included both moral and social obligations to others—a very accepting, even loving attitude toward others.

Curry regards the failure of the French to follow the American example as the great tragedy of the modern world. They chose instead to follow Voltaire’s younger and more “progressive” contemporary, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a brilliant ne’er-do-well living in Geneva, the champion of unlimited popular sovereignty rather than limited government. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s tantalizing message touting the natural goodness of man was popularized as the “noble savage.” Inspired by Rousseau’s romantic notion of human nature, the French reaped political chaos, the blood-drenched Reign of Terror, and the French Revolution. It was a most unhappy outcome for those who, relying on unassisted reason, turned to Rousseau for assistance.

Rousseau’s musings led him to conclude that since man is naturally good, all the suffering and degradation humanity has experienced was due to the inequality of the social order itself. Rousseau sought to set things right, to achieve the just order by providing both equality and liberty for the downtrodden masses. His plan was to have everyone surrender all their rights and submit unconditionally to the General Will. The General Will is the correct will of the people as a collective whole. Since the natural, moral state of man had been corrupted by society, fundamental changes were necessary to reclaim the natural, moral state in which man would again enjoy equality and freedom as he had in his primitive/tribal state. Putting his brilliant mind to the task, Rousseau found a way to resolve that contradiction by cleverly redefining “freedom.” You may have sensed that same trick being attempted today.

Rousseau explained that what individuals want for themselves is not the common good. What is truly good for someone is what he would want if he had complete wisdom. Since the state aims at securing the common good, the state is the concrete expression of the General Will. Since the state aims to secure the common good, the law is the concrete expression of the General Will. We ought, therefore, to obey the state. If we do as we are told we are following our real will. And by doing so we experience true freedom. If an individual does not (loudly) acknowledge what he should really want, the state is justified in forcing him to do so, to conform, or be penalized.

The White House showing President Coolidge on the South lawn. iStock/Getty Images

The Great Debate

An argument over man’s innate nature dominated the 18th century. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the pioneering figure whose influence can still be felt today, regarded man as good by nature. With that assumption there was no need for a system of checks and balances to tame man’s darker side. The Western Judeo-Christian tradition recognizes man’s self-serving tendencies and the architects of our system of government took care to limit his ability to harm others. In 1787 the framers intentionally designed a system to serve the needs of people who were by nature far from angels.

Rousseau’s pie-in-the-sky theories did not find a receptive audience in the colonies. As Curry informs us, the framers, following Western traditional beliefs, were especially concerned with the effect of political power on mere mortals. They carefully defined and limited federal power so that bad people could do the least harm. They sought to curb man’s selfish tendencies by 1) distributing specific (and separate) powers among three branches of federal government; 2) preserving the political independence of the states; 3) crafting a zone of liberty around the individual and 4) setting up two legislative bodies with competing interests as contending forces. They sought as best they could to preserve our unalienable rights by trying to prevent the disastrous concentration of power that ushers in governance without the consent of the governed.

Sober-minded men guided Western civilization to its ultimate radical political idea, individual liberty. The founders, sharing the attitudes, values, and beliefs drawn from the Scottish Enlightenment in the decades before the American Revolution, forged a completely new understanding of man’s relationship to the state, one that not even the Scots had conceived. In this new nation men would no longer be subjects of the sovereign. Men were to be sovereign citizens. The American Enlightenment is written in black and white in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. With a leap of faith in their fellow man they created the political and social governing institutions that would best promote individual liberty. We no longer have the proper attitude regarding our role in governing. Are we capable of a course correction?

In conclusion, in order to more fully understand our present situation consider the following words spoken by President Calvin Coolidge in 1926 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence: 

It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final.

If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.


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