How the Age of Enlightenment Changed France and the United States

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The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe and later in North America, known as the Age of Enlightenment, was an era of several accomplishments within many areas of reason including politics, science, and philosophy. It was during this long period that the way people viewed the world changed dramatically by questioning authority and devising new ways to improve society and humanity. The dynamics of philosophy were especially significant during this time as philosophers provided a framework of ideas that changed the way people reasoned with each other. It is through these ideas that the Enlightenment philosophers played a major role in starting the American and French Revolutions.

Several revolutionary documents including The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the United States Bill of Rights share several common themes. In these documents, it can be observed that they have been heavily influenced by severalEnlightenment thinkers including Jean Jacques Rousseau and Francois-Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire; both were French philosophers. Their ideas greatly influenced the fundamental principles of the revolutionary documents, including the idea that the government should recognize the natural rights of the individual. While both France and the United States fought for these rights, the specific purpose of their revolutions and their outcomes were drastically different. Whether or not these nations were successful depended on how they viewed this idea of natural rights, which was a result of how they interpreted the language of the writings of the philosophers and incorporated them into their own documents.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was one of many documents that incorporated many of the ideas from the Enlightenment. Adopted in 1789 by the National Assembly in France, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was known as one of the most influential and central documents of the French Revolution. France, at the time, was considered “a society grounded in privilege and inequality. It had been divided into classes called Estates. Unfortunately, there was a significant gap between the upper class, or aristocracy, and middle class, known as the bourgeoisie. The gap meant that “they [the bourgeoisie] were often excluded from the social and political privileges monopolized by nobles. This injustice led to hostility towards the aristocracy. However, this was not the only issue that led to a revolt. The monarch, Louis XVI, who was only twenty years old when he began to rule France in 1774, “knew little about the operations of the French government and lacked the energy to deal decisively with the state affairs (Duiker and Spielvogel 473).

This poor leadership of the country brought about even more problems, which eventually led to the French revolution. The purpose of the French Revolution was to overthrow the monarchy and seize control over the government because the people felt their needs were not being met. The National Assembly took a bold step in recognizing the things the royal family and government did wrong and what they should have done for France’s citizens, including the idea that the government was expected to acknowledge and preserve the rights of the people. The basic principle of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen stated that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good (art. 1). In other words, all men held the same rights from the time they were born and were considered neither superior nor inferior according to their class or privileges. This was an attempt to tackle the issue between the bourgeoisie and nobility, breaking down the barrier between them. The rights mentioned in the first article were specified as “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression (art. 2).

The document went on to further specify liberties, or freedoms given to the people, including the freedom of religion, and allowed citizens to “speak, write, and print with freedomprovided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law (art. 10, 11). Earlier in the text, the French emphasized that the “law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society (art. 6). These two sections explain that there are limits to what can be expressed by individuals. This idea of censorship was not an issue during the French Revolution and only became more prominent after its success in 1799, when the people overthrew the monarchy, created a republic, and ended the violent period known as the Reign of Terror. Unfortunately, this success seemed to be short-lived. Following the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte I gained power of France. During his reign from 1799 to 1815, he completely turned around the previous ideas of the Revolution in order to satisfy his thirst for total power (Duiker and Spielvogel 480).

Napoleon may have taken these limits on the freedom of speech too far as “he sought to control what content was to be published and read by the peoplehe had a political agenda that he wanted to promote and anything written that went against his views was censoredThe right to free speech and press was overlooked, while Napoleon’s political, as well as moral views stood in the way (“The Censorship of Writing and Literature Under Napoleon I). Napoleon’s agenda focused more on himself and his demands rather than those of the people. His authoritarian views eventually got the better of him around 1812, when he attempted to invade Russia, but was defeated shortly after. From then on until 1815, his reign suffered greatly until he was killed in Waterloo after a bloody battle with Britain and Prussia (Duiker and Spielvogel 483). It would take years for France to become a strong nation once again.

Although the United States and France shared a similar purpose for their revolutions, the United States’ outcome was distinctly different from that of France. Just like the National Assembly in France, the Constitutional Convention in the United States believed that the government was supposed to protect the rights of their citizens. Prior to the French Revolution, the Americans took part in their own revolt against Britain, who had assumed power over them years earlier.

After the United States’ victory in 1783, the leaders of the nation began to form their own government independent of Britain. Four years later, delegates from the thirteen states met in Philadelphia to draft a blueprint for the future government of the nation, known as the Constitution of the United States. This document was considered remarkable, but was unfortunately flawed in some ways. For one thing, it did not include a specific declaration protecting the rights of the individual. This turned out to be an obstacle for the Constitution’s approval by the states. The American people wanted to be assured that the new government would not tread upon their freedom of speech, press, and religion. The proposal of a “bill of rights was brought to the table as a result of the people’s concern.

Officially known as the United States Bill of Rights, inspired by Thomas Jefferson and drafted by James Madison, the document was introduced to the states in 1789, the same year that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was adopted in France, and became effective in 1791.These first ten amendments of the Constitution became the law of the United States. The purpose of the Bill of Rights was to protect U.S. citizens and their rights, similar to the purpose of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The United States Bill of Rights stated that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances (amend. I) Unlike the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the founding fathers did not explicitly include restrictions of what could be expressed at the time. Because there were no written restrictions in the document like the ones Napoleon Bonaparte put into effect during his reign, the people were satisfied with the work their leaders accomplished after the revolution. The people were now protected by their government to freely exercise their rights and express themselves. As a result of this accomplishment, the United States became much stronger and more unified as a nation.

Although the outcomes of both revolutions were drastically different, it is generally accepted that both the National Assembly in France and the United States Constitutional Congress were greatly influenced by philosophical and political ideas of the Enlightenment when writing these documents. One very prominent individual, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), suggested a social contract between the government and the people decades before the French Revolution, implying that he strongly advocated for fair treatment from the government regarding natural rights. This made him a strong influence on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The first article, as stated earlier, sounded very similar to the words of Rousseau in the Social Contract, where he stated “Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains ( n.p.). He begins by saying that individuals are born with the freedom to do whatever they choose. However, he continues by addressing the restraints, or “chains on freedom during this time. His thoughts on natural rights stems from these statements. Rousseau understood that the government at the time was holding people back from exercising their natural rights, the rights they were born with.

This idea influenced the French later on as well as the Americans, which led them to fight for what was rightfully theirs. He also addressed the dangers of social classes in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, by saying that the distinctions between classes would eventually create conflict and ultimately a state of war (n.p). This was a part of the issues that sparked the French Revolution which was the result of the conflict between the nobles and bourgeoisie. Rousseau’s ideas were considered a foundation for some of the ideas of the French and Americans. It was only how they chose to include it in their purpose for revolting that led to the outcomes later on.

Another famous Enlightenment thinker from France who influenced these two documents was known as Francois-Marie Arouet, famously known as Voltaire. He was considered a strong supporter of social reform, heavily emphasizing his ideas on the freedom of speech and religion. Voltaire was famous for courageously attacking the Church; He “denounced its doctrines and practices in countless [writings] (“The 18th Century to the Revolution of 1789). His writings were published during the time of a corrupt state church and government. His example of rebellion suggests that he strongly advocated the freedom of religion, freely expressing one’s beliefs, regardless of how negatively the church would react. Voltaire was not afraid to speak up and present his own opinions, which is also something he strongly advocated. In one of his many writings, he encouraged people to “think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too (Voltaire, n.p).

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, a biographer of Voltaire, further described his attitude toward the freedom of speech by writing as if it were his own words, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it (n.p.). These two ideas of Voltaire made it into several of the revolutionary documents. Similar to Rousseau, they were only a foundation for the ideas presented during the revolutions. But if it weren’t for the ideas of these two philosophers along with many other Enlightenment thinkers, the people that followed them probably would have not been able to enjoy the rights given to them at birth and instead would have been living in a world of injustice.

The influence of Enlightenment philosophers during a time of reform and revolution in France and the United States is still prominent in their current governments and societies. Ever since the American and French Revolutions, there have been several events where individuals fought for equality and their rights, including the Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968) in America to fighting for fair treatment of women and other minorities all over the world. The idea of these rights emerged from the philosophies developed during the Enlightenment. If it were not for those individuals who spent a considerable amount of time developing their own thoughts and ideas and sharing them with the world, the documents that changed the way many nations worked would not be the same as it is today. It is through the documents such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the United States Bill of Rights are what helped shape the governments of France and America into what they are now. The ideas in the documents, such as equality of the law and freedom of expression and religion are still exercised today. Both the French and American Revolutions inspired other countries later on to fight for their rights. The United States Bill of Rights is also significant today in America. They include the rights individuals live by every day and no one is allowed to take them away. People are still able to express themselves and their views freely without any consequences. Because of the Enlightenment philosophers and the ideas developed during the time of reform and revolution, the world, although will never really be perfect, is still a happier and more satisfying place to live in as people exercise their right to live freely according to their own will.

Works Cited

  1. Voltaire, et al. The Works of M. De Voltaire. Printed for J. Newberry, R. Baldwin, W. Johnston, S. Crowder, T. Davies, J. Coote, G. Kearsley, and B. Collins, at Salisbury, 1761.
  2. Smethurst, Colin, and Jennifer Birkett. “French Literature.Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 21 July 2016,
  3. “The Censorship of Writing and Literature Under Napoleon I.Censorship in the Humanities, 22 Sept. 2010,
  4. Voltaire (Franois-Marie Arouet) By Individual Philosopher Philosophy,
  5. “Discourse on Inequality.SparkNotes, SparkNotes,
  6. “The Social Contract.SparkNotes, SparkNotes,
  7. Shmoop Editorial Team. “First Amendment.Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008,
  8. Shmoop Editorial Team. “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen: Articles Summary.Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008,
  9. “Bill of Rights.Bill of Rights Institute,
  10. Avalon Project – Declaration of the Rights of Man – 1789,
  11. Duiker, William J., and Jackson J. Spielvogel. The Essential World History. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2015.


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