The Enlightenment as the Philosophical Foundation of the American, French and Haitian Revolutions

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During the 18th and 19th centuries, certain nations and colonies located in the Atlantic desired to upheave the current governmental and pecuniary mandate of the administrations in control, they wanted to institute a fresh direction, founded on the philosophies of the Enlightenment - exclusively pursuing to establish order that desired to create government based on social compact, separation of power, participation by the people in government and the protection of individual rights. As the developments of industrialization, urbanization, revolutions and distribution of education progressed in this era, the concepts of enlightenment philosophies spread. These enlightenment ideologies world argue against established authority and encompassed the belief that civilization could be enhanced through rational amendments forming political and economic reorder.

The Enlightenment was essential for America as it offered the philosophical foundation of the American Revolution, which created political and economic change. The Revolution was beyond an objection against English power; the American Revolution offered a proposal for the organization of a democratic society. The American Revolution was a progressive model of administration whose most profound documents may have been the American Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The document resolved to inaugurate a penned foundation for the nation to be governed on. This document not only aids as the structure for the American administration but also stimulated several other nations to use the designs in constitutions of their own. The Enlightenment is throughout the US constitution. Concepts in the constitution came from several different Enlightenment thinkers. John Locke's theories of allowing people to select their leaders or the idea that influence lies with the people are continual in the United States. Locke’s Second Treatise of Authority encapsulates his views on the roots and structure of a rightful, and a nominated government, and this idea would be referred upon in the formation of the Constitution. One noticeable influence would be the viewpoints related to natural rights found in the Constitution and also the Declaration of Independence.

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The Declaration of Independence (1776) states in the second paragraph of the first article, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Montesquieu's teachings were also used in the United States constitution. Montesquieu realized the ability in the separation of power through the theory of checks and balances. Checks and balances are used to ensure that no one division of government has too much power. The Separation of Powers established by the initiators of the United States Constitution was aimed to do one primary thing: to prevent the majority from ruling with too much authority. Based on their experience, the framers shied away from giving any branch of the new government too much power. The separation of powers provides a system of shared power known as Checks and Balances. Three arms are created in the Constitution. The Legislative, composed of the House and Senate, which can be found in Article 1. The Executive, composed of the President, Vice-President, and the Departments, is created in Article 2. The Judicial, composed of the federal courts and the Supreme Court, is set up in Article 3. Voltaire, another enlightenment philosopher believed in religious freedom, which is practiced in the US today, this can be seen in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (Bill of Rights). The final thinker whose ideas are present in the constitution is Beccaria. He believed that the accused have rights and that torture is unjust punishment. This is where the term 'innocent until proven guilty' comes from. This can be seen in the fifth amendment of the Bill of Rights: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise, infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury” (Bill of Rights).

The French Revolution saw the feudal people of France revolt against the unlimited monarchy of Louis XVI in preference to a republic that was founded on consideration for human rights. The principles of liberation and equality, that were needed to rebel against Louis XVI, arose originally from the works of significant and prominent intellectuals of the Age of Enlightenment. Specifically, the literatures of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Baron de Montesquieu critically sparked the revolutionaries. All of these three Enlightenment academics questioned the old-style power of an absolute monarch and disputed in contradiction of the rigid class partitions of feudalism, or the estates-system, present during this time period in France. Their challenging of authority and the role of the government inspired the revolutionaries, and ordinary citizens, of France. The bourgeoisie was an emerging business and skilled class in France. They were well educated and acquainted with the works of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. The bourgeoisie was also mindful of the British regime that restricted the Monarch's supremacy and the victory of the Americans in revolting against the British Monarch that was constructed on Enlightenment philosophies. The bourgeoisie, educated, yet without many opportunities apportioned to the First and Second Estate started to query whether they could also amend their collective and civil establishment in France.

Another impression of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution can be realized in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The document was implemented by the National Assembly on August 26th, 1789. The declaration was vitally essential to the French Revolution since it openly contested the power of Louis XVI. For example, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen established a series of individual rights safeguarded by law. The key idea stated in Article 1 that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights”, which were specified as the entitlements of liberty, private property, and defiance of oppression stated in Article 2. It should be mentioned that the declaration acknowledges that all citizens are the same in the eyes of the law and have the ability to participate in lawmaking directly or indirectly (Article 6). Freedom of religion, a key component of the enlightenment can be seen in Article 10 and the freedom of speech (Article 11) were defended within the constraints of civic law and order.

The rudimentary values of the declaration can be seen in the ideas and arguments of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. As well, the declaration is reflected to be one of the first forms that contended in favor of natural rights for all citizens. Overall, the French Revolution is often viewed today as a period when the concepts of the Enlightenment were put into action.

The Haitian Revolution of 1789-1804 and the consequential Constitution of Haiti is no exception to political and economic reordering of the Atlantic world through Enlightenment. The Enlightenment ideas of equality for men and representative régime were crucial to the uprising. One slave greatly influenced by Enlightenment ideals, Toussaint Louverture, the leader and founder of the uprising. Eventually, the Enlightenment stirred a successful slave insurrection in Haiti. Delegates of the individuals of color and slaves declared for a right to be incorporated within the jurisdiction of free and equal man seen in the French Declaration. Inspired by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the French Revolution, Toussaint Louverture managed a rebellion promoting for civic and constitutional privileges of the people of Haiti, including the improvement of slaves. This acknowledged that all men in Haiti were granted with the entitlements afforded to in the Declaration of the Rights Man Charter, containing the ability to revolt against oppression specified in Article II. Rousseau in his works of The Social Contract, he wrote, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”. That statement is particularly significant to the Haitian Revolution as those who fought in contradiction of the common system were mainly slaves. The constitution of Haiti demonstrates the clear desire for the ideologies that enlightenment thinkers exclaim to be present in Haiti. Title V, Article 12 “guarantees individual freedom and safety” and notes that someone could be detained only “by virtue of a formally expressed order, issued by a functionary who the law gives the right to arrest and detain”. Title V, Article 13 protects property rights, calling property “sacred and inviolable”. Title VII moves to the particulars of administration. It calls for an assembly and identifies policies for participation in the assembly, election processes, gatherings of the assembly, and related useful materials.

The articles above were a considerable step in creating a society founded on enlightenment ideals, clearly through the popular sovereignty and individuals’ freedoms, acknowledging the notion that all men are born equal and should be free.

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The Enlightenment as the Philosophical Foundation of the American, French and Haitian Revolutions. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from
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