During the height of the French Revolution, about 3,000 Parisian revolutionaries held an entire country (30,000,000 people) hostage. The economic class from which they primarily derived was the up-and-coming educated merchants known as the bourgeoisie. They were driven by ideals of the philosophical and cultural Enlightenment, which emphasized the importance of man’s capacity for reason and his individuality. This was not only a philosophical movement, but a scientific one.
Writings of the philosopher, John Locke, were integral in much of the sentiment of the time and greatly influenced America’s own Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson likely drew directly from two of Locke’s texts, Two Treatises of Government and Essay Concerning Human Understanding in order to pen his original words:
“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness…”
The French revolutionaries also took as their motto, Liberty – Equality – Fraternity– the last term reflecting the sense of Nationalism (or patriotism) that was rapidly replacing Parochialism and loyalty to the Church and the Crown. With the spread of literacy, the rise of the merchant class, and the recession of feudalism, the ignoble classes began to question and refute the rights of the aristocracy and clerics like never before.
In order to understand how revolutionary was the ideal of Equality, one must understand that prior to the Enlightenment it was believed that a king’s right to rule was God-given, and he himself answered only to the Church and the Pope. Society was comprised of minute percentages of clerics and aristocracy, and the remainder of society, prior to the boom in merchant trade, was largely feudal, very poor, and sorely uneducated. Peoples’ loyalties lay primarily with the Church and in the obeyance of the Crown and aristocracy who represented him.
But during the Medieval Renaissance, education began to spread through the Church. Over the next few centuries, it spread to parts of the aristocracy and then finally to the growing merchant class prior to and during the Enlightenment. Philosophers such as John Locke, Sir Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Voltaire, David Hume, and Baruch Spinoza spear-headed the ideals of the Enlightenment, questioning authority and the status quo and promoting reason and loyalty to one’s fellow man rather than to institutional bodies.
These ideals inspired not only the French Revolution but also our own American Revolution. However, what many people don’t realize is that these revolutions were ignited by a portion of the intellectual elite and weren’t always supported, especially early on, by the larger society. In France, in particular, there was considerable upset throughout the entire revolutionary period over breaking with the Catholic Church, though this was later rectified by Napoleon. In America, since Catholicism was not the reigning form of Christianity, revolting against the British crown meant only a change in governmental, not religious, loyalities.
Though we associate the American Revolution with the fight for the common man, our founding fathers were in fact many of the intelligentsia of the day. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, though he was a plantation owner was well-educated and was actively involved in investigations of Natural Philosophy, including horticulture. He was also an avid amateur paleontologist and debated theories with other elite paleontologists in Paris, although he was not a supporter of the growing idea of Transmutation (otherwise known as Evolution). Benjamin Franklin, another of our founding fathers, was a Renaissance man, both an avid inventor and one of the earliest and best known scientists to study electricity.
In America, Patriots (as the revolutionaries were called) received support of less than half of the European-descended populace. The remainder were either loyal to the British crown, pacifists, or apolitical. However, some of the ideals of the Enlightenment had actively spread throughout the colonies, particularly the belief of man’s inalienable right to property, a form of American Nationalism upon which much of our agrarian society was founded, leading to subsequent westward expansion and the unfortunate holocaust of most Native American tribes .
In essence, though the Enlightenment-derived sense of Nationalism spread throughout the new United States and is still prevalent in many parts today, other ideals of the Enlightenment, such as the emphasis on man’s ability to reason, remained confined to the educated classes.
As a modern day American, I’ve found the political, religious, and cultural division in America both troubling and fascinating. As an educated person who grew up in historically Democratic St. Louis, I’m a former-Catholic-now-atheist humanitarian scientist who has inherited my love of education from a long line of highly educated Danish ministers turned engineers turned psychologists on my mother’s side and a line of Virginia politicians turned Confederate doctors turned engineers on my father’s side. In short, I’ve inherited the belief in the importance of Enlightenment-derived Reason from my family, as much as I’ve inherited any gene or physical trait.
And so too, I imagine, have many Americans inherited Nationalism (patriotism) from the more historically agrarian societies who took on that limited mantle of Enlightenment to further western expansion. And now, the remnants of those philosophical and political movements remain, further entrenched by events such as the Civil War.
In the Enlightenment movement, Reason was bed partner to Science. Therefore, doesn’t it make more sense that the acceptance of the Theory of Evolution, for instance, is strongest in those locales that contain the top-ranked universities and were more quintessentially “bourgeois” during early America? As the Republican Party has taken up the mantle of Creationism, is it not also unsurprising that they have their strongest foothold in the bread basket of America?
The Enlightenment obviously spread throughout early white America, but it didn’t spread evenly it seems. As is typical of humans, we picked and chose the parts of the philosophical movement that had greatest appeal. For farmers, the acquisition of land was most appealing; for educated merchants, science and reason were of greater interest. Thus, even though today we Americans may be arguing tooth and nail over what feels like modern problems, we are part of an old and divided culture and these grievances span centuries.
But the greatest thing about modern day is the wealth of knowledge at our fingertips. Through reading about and visiting other cultures, we have more opportunity to step outside of our biases and assumptions and to expand our philosophies. And so even though America today is a country divided, not just amongst its European descendants but black, hispanic, Asian, etc. because of all of our different histories, we have more opportunities than ever to share our cultures. After all, without the European Enlightenment, America wouldn’t be America.