How Did Enlightenment Ideas Influence The Declaration of Independence: Analytical Essay

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The question of whether American national identity is political seems to have a simple answer as the myth of the founding fathers and the reverence for the documents they wrote seems to be so strong in the collective consciousness of the people. Of course, it's a political concept as the liberal basis of the Constitution lays out the right rights of all people. But the answer is not so simple. There are actually many threads that tie together the idea of the United States as a nation, it can be argued that Protestantism, American Exceptionalism, and the exclusion of the Other, all contributed to the American Identity, demonstrating that it is insufficient to see national identity as a primarily political concept is flawed.

The idea that American national identity began in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence is flawed and fails to recognize the fact that The United States was not particularly united at this time. Before the Declaration of Independence, people did not identify with the label of American, rather they would identify as being British or they would identify themselves as being from their states. In January 1760 Benjamin Franklin saw Wolfe's defeat in the Battle of Quebec and proudly declared, 'I am a Briton.' then in July 1776, Franklin signed the Declaration which renounced his British identity. Historian Samuel P. Huntington argues that 'In a few years Franklin transformed himself from a Briton into an American', but 'American' was not an identifier that was used ubiquitously among even the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson often referred to Virginia as his 'nation'. This shows that at this point the concept of American as a national identity was not well established and the only thing that ties the states together into a larger 'nation' is the political legislation, such as the Articles of Confederation which was signed in 1777. However, there is growing tension between the Northern and Southern states in the years between the Articles of Confederation and the Civil War, national identity competes with state identities as the North and South struggled to civilly reconcile the ideological differences between them. John C. Calhoun, vice president under Adams and Jackson, said that he never uses the word 'nation' when speaking of the United States. This is further evidence at this time America was less of a nation and far more of a collection of individual states. America has to lean into the political aspect of its national identity because as a very young country, they have to try to create a history for people to look back on. The American national identity seemingly could not be a historical one based on myths around the birth of the country as the country has such a short history but in the first major history book of the American nation; 'History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent to the present' which had ten volumes that were published between 1834 and 1874. It frames the beginning of America, not being the independence declared in 1776, but rather in 1492 when Columbus 'founded' the continent. Which appears to be an attempt to give the country a longer, more ancient history to draw a sense of national pride from. This shows an attempt to widen American national identity away from its very politicized roots to make it more of a broader cultural idea.

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Seemingly, nothing is more key to American national identity than classical liberalism and the reverence of the founding fathers. Core American values are heavily drawn from the nation's founding documents and the authors of them drew heavy inspiration from French Liberalism and the Enlightenment, the Founding Fathers emphasized the importance of the Enlightenment's value of self-determination within the Declaration of Independence. First, they believed in an individual as the core element of society, who had the right to freedom, happiness, and self-development. In Jefferson's approach to the problems of equality and inalienable human rights to life and liberty, it is seemingly easy to trace back to the influence of the ideas of liberalism of the English philosopher John Locke. The series of events that led to the American war for independence is very key to the national identity, there is a sort of mythology surrounding the beginning of the war and the founding fathers, when in reality, what set off the revolution was tax disputes. This highlights the national identity as being heavily based on liberal thinking, as the revolutionary sentiment was originally 'no taxation without representation' which is simply just the idea that government should be representative and serve the will of the people which is a liberal ideal. The Founding Fathers assumed the idea of 'the social agreement between the government and free individuals. The Declaration of Independence states that people 'are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.' which would seem to be a political and neutral statement about the rights of all American people but given that a large majority of the Founding Fathers owned slaves which suggests that maybe the American national identity is not as political as it first appears.

The idea that America was founded on political pretenses and was a noble stance against the British monarchy and for liberalism and freedom is such a strong cultural idea that is so closely tied to the American national identity that it seems almost impossible to separate them. However, it is evident that the reverence for the Founding Fathers shows the hypocrisy of the American identity and the way that the national identity is tied to the ideas set out in the founding documents seems to deliberately ignore the fact that many people in America were not treated in a way that aligned with the founding principles.

One of the most important aspects of American national identity is who is, and isn't, allowed to be an America, the exclusive nature of it can be argued to be a part of the identity itself. The vision for America and its inclusivity is far different from its reality. Thomas Paine in Common Sense, a pamphlet published in 1776, called America 'an asylum for mankind'- seeming to set a welcoming identity for people seeking refuge, but it seems that this idea did not have a practical effect on American national identity, as while America was a popular place for European immigrants, in reality, America was a very hostile place for many people. Thomas Jefferson in 1817 described the US as a 'sanctuary for those whom the misrule of Europe may compel to seek happiness in other climates' this is clear evidence that America is only a refuge for Europeans which perpetuates the idea that while America is a country of immigrants, they should all be white. It seems clear that being non-white and non-christian excluded you from fitting within the category of American, this can be seen in the discriminatory laws that were commonplace. In the context of 1776 - 1896, there were many laws that prevented people from being able to integrate into American society, for example, the Jim Crow laws of 1887 excluded

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How Did Enlightenment Ideas Influence The Declaration of Independence: Analytical Essay. (2023, September 19). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from
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