How the Age of Enlightenment Changed France and the United States

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The Enlightenment Age in Europe, which include both the late 17th and 18th centuries, was a period of numerous achievements in various areas of reason such as science, politics, as well as philosophy. During this era, individuals drastically changed their views of the world by questioning and challenging authority and coming up with novel ways of improving humanity and the general society. The changing aspects of philosophy were particularly substantial in this period since philosophers established a structure of ideas that altered how people would reason with one another.

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These ideas enabled Enlightenment philosophers to play a key role in beginning the French as well as American Revolutions.

Numerous revolutionary documents such as the United States Bill of Rights and The Declaration of the Rights of Man have some common themes. One observation in these documents is that they borrow heavily from the various Enlightenment thinkers, such as French philosophers Francois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) and Jacques Rousseau. These philosophers’ ideas had a great influence on the basic revolutionary document principles, such as the concept that governments ought to uphold the inherent rights of a person. While the United States and France struggled to gain these rights, the particular aim of their revolutions, as well as the aftermaths, was radically not the same. Whether or not these countries succeeded depended on the way they perceived this notion of natural or inherent rights, and this resulted from the way they interpreted the writings and language of the philosophers as well as how they integrated them into their documents.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen signifies the numerous documents that integrated many of the Enlightenment concepts. This document was embraced in 1789 in France by their National Assembly and was perceived to be among the most key and influential documents associated with the French Revolution. During this period, French was perceived as a society founded on inequality and privilege and was separated into classes referred to as Estates. Regrettably, a considerable divide existed between the aristocracy, the upper class, and the middle class (referred to as the bourgeoisie). This gap inevitably implied that the middle class was commonly excluded from the political and social privileges that the aristocrats had monopolized. This inequality result in hostility towards the nobles. Yet, injustice was not the only issue that informed the hostility. Louis XVI, a French monarch, who started his rule at only 20 years, had little knowledge regarding the government’s operations and had no power to handle the situation decisively (Duiker and Spielvogel 473).

More problems arose from Louis XVI’s poor leadership, which finally culminated in the French Revolution. The aim of this revolution was to seize government control after overthrowing the monarchy since the French civilians perceived that the government could not meet their needs. The National Assembly went on to recognize the things the government, as well as the royal family, had done wrongly and what they ought to have accomplished for the citizens, such as the notion that the government was supposed to recognize and upholds people’s rights. The fundamental tenet of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen asserted that humans are born and remain free and have equal rights. Social differences are likely to be established only on the overall good (art 1). Particularly, all humans shared the same rights since birth and were perceived neither as inferior nor inferior in accordance with their privilege or class. The revolution was an effort to address the issues between the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie and to break down the obstacle between them. The first article stated and specified the various rights, including liberty, security, resistance against oppression, as well as property (art 2)

Further, the document specified liberties or freedoms offered to men comprising freedom of citizens to speak up, religious freedom, and freedom of print as long as their expression does not interrupt the public order as indicated by the law (art.10.11). Previously in the document, the French stressed that the law could only outlaw actions that harm society (art 6). The first and second options expound that an individual’s freedom of expression has limits, which relates to the concept of censorship that did not arise during the revolution and only emerged prominently following the 1799 success. The success involved people ousting the monarchy, establishing a republic, and stopping the Reign of Terror, a violent period in France. Regrettably, this success did not last long. After the revolution, the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte began (1799-1815), marked by his turning around the past concepts of revolution so that to gratify his desire for absolute power (Duiker and Spielvogel 480).

Napoleon seems to have taken the freedom of speech limits too far since he strived to control the content published or read by the civilians informed by any political agenda that he sought to promote and censor whatever writings that opposed his views. The upholding of Napoleon’s political will or moral perceptions meant that the right to speech and freedom of the press was disregarded (The Censorship of Writing and Literature Under Napoleon I). His agenda mostly emphasized his demands or himself instead of people’s agenda. These authoritarian views finally overshadowed logic when he tried to invade Russia in 1812 but was overpowered shortly after. From this period on until 1812, Napoleon’s reign encountered great setbacks until his death in Waterloo after a gory battle with Prussia and Britain (Duiker and Spielvogel 483). France remains weak after the defeat until years later.

Even though France and the United States had a common aim for the revolutions, the US’s aftermath was uniquely separate. Similar to France’s National Assembly, the US Constitutional Convention supposed that the function of government was to protect the citizens’ rights. Before the French Revolution, people in the United States participated in their revolt against the British Empire, which had previously taken over power. After the US 1783 victory, the national leaders started to establish their government independent of the British. About four years later, representatives from 13 states converged in Philadelphia to come up with the nation’s future government blueprint, referred to as the Constitution of the United States. The resultant document was perceived to be outstanding but was regrettably flawed in various ways. Firstly, the document failed to include a particular declaration to safeguard people’s rights, which became a hindrance to the approval of the Constitution by the states. Americans sought assurance that the government would not violate their freedom of religion, speech, as well as the press. The ” Bill of Rights” proposal was present at the table due to concerns from the people.

The official United States Bill of Rights, established under Thomas Jefferson’s inspiration and drafted by James Madison, was presented in 1789 to the states. In the same year, France adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. In 1791, The US Bill of Rights became effective. The first ten constitutional amendments became US law. Besides, the Bill of Rights purposed to safeguard the US citizens as well as their rights, which was the same aim of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The Bill of Rights prohibited Congress from making laws that respected the creation of religion, outlawing the exercising of free religion, violating the freedom of speech and press, violating people’s rights to peacefully assemble, and entreating the government for grievances’ redress (Amend I). In contrast with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the founders of the nation did not clearly include limitations on freedom of expression. Since the US had no written restrictions in the document similar to the ones included by Napoleon Bonaparte during his time in power, the Americans were contented with the work accomplished by the founders following the revolution. The government now safeguards the people’s rights to freely enjoy their rights as well as express themselves. Due to this success, the US turned out to be a more unified and stronger nation.

Even though the consequences of the two uprisings were fundamentally distinct, the collective consensus is that France’s National Assembly, as well as the US Constitutional Congress, were significantly shaped by the Enlightenment political and philosophical concepts when preparing these provisions. A major noticeable philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), proposed a social contract between the people and their government decades prior to the French Revolution and suggested that he firmly supported just treatment from the authorities in relation to natural rights. This argument meant that he strongly shaped the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. As aforementioned, the first article was quite similar to Rousseau’s words in the Social contract, in which he asserted that humans are born free and are everywhere in chains (n.p.). Rousseau started by stating that people are born free to choose whatever they want to do. Yet, he proceeds to address the limitations or chains of freedom in this period. Rousseau’s perceptions of inherent rights result from such assertions. He understood that, during that time, the government was preventing individuals from exercising their inborn rights.

Later on, this concept shaped the French and Americans, which made them fight for their rights. Rousseau also discusses the risks of social classes in his argument on the Origin of Equality, whereby he asserted that the differences between various classes would finally result in conflict and, eventually, war. The problem was some of the concerns that ignited the French Revolution that arose from the struggle between the aristocrats and the bourgeois. His concepts were perceived as the foundation for some notions of the Americans and French. This is also the way they decided to comprise it in their aim of evolution, which later on resulted in the outcomes.

Francois-Marie Arouet, famously referred to as Voltaire, was the other philosopher who shaped the documents. The philosopher was perceived as a strong advocate of social reform, greatly focusing his concepts on the freedom of religion and speech. He was renowned for bravely challenging the Church and disapproving of its doctrines as well as practices in numerous writings (The 8th Century to the Revolution of 1789). Voltaire’s texts were published at a time the church and the government were very corrupt. The thinker’s example of resistance implies that he greatly supported religious freedom, freedom to express one’s beliefs, irrespective of the way adversely the church would respond.  He was not worried about speaking up as well as presenting his views, something that he also supported. Among his numerous writings is where he motivated individuals to think for themselves as well as allow others to enjoy the privilege to do the same (Voltaire, n.p).

Voltaire’s biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, further termed his outlook towards speech freedom by writing as though it were his words, stating that “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it (n.p.)”. Two of Voltaire’s notions were included in part of the revolutionary documents. However, if it were not for the concepts of these philosophers together with numerous other Enlightenment philosophers, their followers most likely could not have managed to enjoy the natural rights assured at birth, but rather, they would have faced injustices in their society.

The Enlightenment influence of the thinkers during the period of revolutions and reform in France, as well as the US, is still large in their present societies and governments. Even after these revolutions, there were several occurrences where people struggled for equality as well as their rights, such as the 1954 to 1968 Civil Rights Movement in the US and the struggle for the just treatment of minorities and women across the world. The notion that these rights came about from the Enlightenment philosophies. Were it not for these people spending a substantial amount of time developing their ideas and thoughts and sharing them with the rest of the world, the texts that alternated how numerous countries functioned would not be similar to the present. The texts such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizens in the US Bill of Rights allowed for shaping the US and France governments into what they presently appear. The concepts in the texts, including freedom of religion and expression and equality under the law, still exist today. Also, the Bill of Rights is important presently in the US. Such rights include the rights people observe each day, and nobody is permitted to strip them away. Still, individuals can express themselves as well as their perceptions freely with no consequences. Due to the Enlightenment ideas and thinkers, established at the time of revolution and reform, the world, even though cannot be perfect, is a much happier as well as more nourishing place to exist as individuals exercise their freedom and rights.

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How the Age of Enlightenment Changed France and the United States. (2019, Apr 27). Retrieved from