The Enlightenment was a European intellectual movement in the 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition and was heavily influenced by a lot of thinkers and their ideas. These ideas were from liberals of those days and they were humanists who supported equality and human dignity. The Enlightenment started in Europe and later on spread to the United States and it attracted the likes of Thomson Paine and Thomas Jefferson. There were a few enlightenment thinkers whose ideas were directly borrowed from the forefathers of the American Revolution.
Borrowing heavily from a British contract law called as implied agreement, Hobbes has famously asserted that people lay down their ‘natural rights’ which are pretty inherited in an individual to the sovereign which will have absolute power. Hobbes’s idea of ‘Social contract’ further imposes that it is the duty of the sovereign, which might be an individual or groups of people who will have the responsibility for collectively protecting people’s life, liberty and property. One interesting point to note here is that Hobbes propounded that the Social contract was an agreement among the people and not in between them, so the people don’t have the right to revolt. According to him, the king being the head of the state is the best form of government. Hobbes’s state of nature talks about humans being egoistic, that everyone works for its own self interests, second is scarcity that there isn’t enough for everyone and third is equality that everyone humans of a general scale are all capable of killing each other. These ideas formed the State of Nature for Hobbes. The state of nature founded the base for a social contract theory which was just a point made by him and this pint was heavily argued against by Locke which actually formed the base of the Revolution, nevertheless the value from it cannot be taken.
John Locke argued against Hobbes’s theory and he’s said to be one of the most influential in terms of his thoughts for the American Revolution. In his book called as Second treatise, he argued against Hobbes saying that his State of Nature is preferable to a tyranny of Sovereign and therefore it showed so much semblance in the Declaration of Independence. These documents wanted to prevent tyranny from controlling the masses and the founding fathers were much more persuaded by him. Whilst Hobbes has a pessimistic sentiment on humanity, Locke radiates ideas that humans can be compassionate for each other, even if it doesn’t benefit each other. Two basic points on which he disagreed with Hobbes are firstly that natural rights are inalienable and cannot be given up. The second one is that the social contract is a contact between people and the king and the king or the sovereign has to protect these natural rights of the people. He also said that if social contract is broken, people have the right to revolt against the sovereign. These ideas were heavily reflected by Thomas Jefferson
Charles (Baron de) Montesquieu
He produced his greatest work, The spirit of the Laws in 1748. As soon as man enters into a state of society,” Montesquieu wrote, “he loses the sense of his weakness, equality ceases, and then commences the state of war.” He meant that in the state of nature, humans are so fearful that they avoid war and violence and the need for food persuaded them to live together with each other. The state of war among individuals and nations led to human laws and ideals of governance. Montesquieu further thought that the best form of government was one in which the legislative, executive, and judicial powers were separate and kept each other in check to prevent any branch from becoming too powerful. He believed that if these powers are united, it would lead to despotism. The forefathers later adopted this theory in the foundation of the US constitution. This can be taken as one of the chief contributions by him to the American Revolution.
He was famous for one of his most influential works in 1762 on political theory, The Social contract. Rousseau agreed with Locke that man shouldn’t give up their natural rights because they’re inalienable and are pretty much inherently inside us. The problem in the state of nature for Rousseau was to find a way to protect everyone’s life, liberty and property which each person remained free. Instead of giving up their rights to the king ,people should give up their rights to the whole community, all the people. This in turn will help people to exercise their general will which will help for their own good. Rousseau believed in small scale democracy, wherein through general will they can directly elect their representatives and then through communication can form laws for the state. He didn’t believe in separation of powers into legislative, judiciary and executive. Furthermore,people will be forced to follow the laws of the state as long as they belong to the state. This idea of a ‘civil society’ is where justice, liberty, property and equality are protected. Rousseau’s general will was later embedded in the constitution as “We the people . . .” which is at the beginning of the U.S. constitution.