Enlightenment Represents a Stage in Western Philosophy

Enlightenment represents a stage in Western philosophy and culture which spanned the eighteenth century, and advocated Reason as the primary source of authority. As a movement, the beginning of the Enlightenment can be placed at the middle of the eighteenth century when a group of French philosophers, referred to as The Philosophes, along with foreign intellectuals living in Paris, gathered to discuss and write about ways of improving the world through a number of values that they all shared: reason, humanity, liberty and tolerance (Robertson 40). French philosophers criticized the old regime, but critics have argued that their rebellion was carried out in writing, and often lacked action (Porter 23). However, historians and political scientists alike have agreed that the fathers of the American Declaration of Independence, the United States Bill of Rights, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen were influenced by Enlightenment, and the documents in question contain principles and ideas that were characteristic to the eighteenth century movement. Thesis: This paper strives to provide an overview of the Age of Reason, and to investigate into the ways in which Enlightenment ideas and values impacted the ratification of the American Constitution. In doing so, the paper will present the standpoints of the two opposing political sides involved in the dispute over the American Constitution, i.e. The Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.

John Robertson, a Fellow of St. Hugh's College, Oxford, and a University Lecturer in Modern History, argues that "the traditional Enlightenment had two aspects, literary and philosophical" (Robertson 41). Literary historians identified a number of great writers associated with the movement: Voltaire and Montesquieu who are considered the founding-fathers of Enlightenment, Diderot and D'Alembert, editors of the "Encyclopedie," as well as the philosophers Helvetius, Condillac, Condorcet, Rousseau, and the political economists Turgot and Quesnay (Robertson, 1997).

The most prominent literary work of the Enlightenment was "L'Encyclopedie," a collective effort of over one hundred French thinkers of the epoch whose aim was to secularize learning and diminish beliefs and attitudes reminiscent from the Middle Ages. For this group of writers, human improvement relied on a profound understanding and mastering of nature through science and technology as opposed to religion. Besides the "Encyclopedie" (1751-72), other significant writings include Montesquieu's "Esprit des Lois" (1748), Voltaire's novella "Candide" (1759), Rousseau's "Du contrat social" (1761), and English philosopher David Hume's "An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding" (1748).

Scholars trained in the history of philosophy, on the other hand, argue that the birth of the Enlightenment as a movement was Immanuel Kant's essay, "What is Enlightenment," written in 1783. The essay is claimed to have offered the first coherent framework of the Enlightenment, defined as a revolution of philosophy, hence of knowledge. Kant's new critical basis was developed between the 1750s and 1790s, and has been regarded as "a systematic summation of the intellectual project of the entire Enlightenment," covering a wide range of fields such as metaphysics, aesthetics, moral and politics (Robertson 44). His motto, "Sapere aude" -- which translates to "dare to know" -- summarizes Kant's new approach to knowledge, one that was geographically far from Paris -- Kant lived and taught in East Prussia -- but quintessential to a systematic approach to the values put forth by the French Philosophes.

As with any major historical event, the ratification of the American Constitution in 1787-1788 gave birth to two opposing sides. Also, as on many other occasions, the winning side has been thoroughly analyzed and its arguments have been the focal point of many scholarly disputes over the last two centuries. The Federalists were those in favor of a strong central government that entailed a smaller degree of political power and decision for local governments. The leading figure of the Federalists was Alexander Hamilton, the founder of the Federalist Party, the first political system of the United States that lasted between 1793 and 1816. The opposing side of the Federalist were the Anti-Federalists whose political thought has been somewhat neglected, partly due to the fact that they were the losing side in the political battle of the ratification. However, several historians and scholars, such as Cecelia M. Kenyon, former Government professor at Smith College, have argued that if the Founding Fathers had followed their philosophy, there probably would have been no ratification of the Constitution. The ultra-democratic view of the Federalists as far as the Constitution revolved around the limitation of political power which was neither historically nor politically feasible (Kenyon 42). From this point-of-view, in order to achieve a complete understanding of the circumstances of the ratification, it is crucial to investigate into the principles and beliefs of the Anti-Federalists, and what their role in shaping American political thought in the formative years was.

Some of the Enlightenment philosophers' ideas were absorbed in the process of ratification of the Constitution. Montesquieu's principle of the balance of power between three branches of government -- executive, legislative and judiciary -- was assumed by the Founding Fathers. Similarly, the new government embraced Rousseau's arguments in favor of the power of democracy and popular consent. In fact, the Anti-Federalist main source of inspiration was French philosopher Montesquieu who argued that the republic had prevailed in Antiquity, and was now a thing of the past. He believed that monarchy was a viable and desirable solution for the modern world, and that its only fault was the fact that it was exposed to despotism, a form of one-man rule where authority was validated by fear. Although they agreed with their political adversaries that the U.S. needed a strong central government, Anti-Federalists claimed that the centralized government put forward by the Framers of the Constitution would lead to a new type of tyranny. They believed that the Constitution was "aristocratic in origin and intent" (Kenyon 7), and that it was in fact, anti-democratic in its structure. However, the American Constitution proved that "Republican modes of government could function in the modern world" (Porter 28).

As Kenyon points out, it is important to note that a very large proportion of the American population was, in fact, partisan of the Anti-Federalists (Kenyon 4). Their main argument as to why a strong centralized government was not the appropriate solution was that this kind of political organization was suitable only for small territories with relatively homogenous population (Ibid 8). Federalists, through the voice of Alexander Hamilton, argued that the size of the ancient state invoked by Montesquieu fell "far short of the limits of almost every one of these [American] states" (Hamilton in Smith 7). Also, the Anti-Federalists held that the small size of the House of Representatives would hinder the chances of members of the middle and lower orders to be elected (Kenyon 10). This kind of injustice was the reason why they believed that the House of Representatives was not a democratic organ. However, the American Constitution put forth a political model that would prove that political power did not automatically corrupt. Power was constitutionally regulated and established through popular sovereignty. In this sense, the defense of liberty did not rely on reactionary groups as Montesquieu had claimed (Porter 30).

Another great influence exerted over the ratification of the American Constitution was represented by English Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. In fact, British political tradition influenced the newly founded nation especially because most Americans of the eighteenth century had been born British, thus the writings of Hume were immediately adopted in America. Montesquieu talked about the connection between the size of a state and the threat of absolutism arguing that large distances implied a greater concentration of power. In his 1754 essay, "Of the idea of a Perfect Commonwealth," Hume supported the idea that factionalism and division threatened small and democratic republics (Smith 13). He argued that "large democratic republican governments would enjoy advantages from numerous…