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The Enlightenment

The ideas of the Enlightenment, which emphasized science and reason over faith and superstition, strongly influenced the American colonies in the eighteenth century. 


  • The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement in the eighteenth century that emphasized reason and science.
  • The British colonist Benjamin Franklin gained fame on both sides of the Atlantic as a printer, publisher, and scientist. He embodied Enlightenment ideals in the British Atlantic with his scientific experiments and philanthropic endeavors.
  • Enlightenment principles guided the founding of the colony of Georgia, but those principles failed to stand up to the realities of colonial life.

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, was an intellectual and cultural movement in the eighteenth century that emphasized reason over superstition and science over blind faith. Using the power of the press, Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Voltaire questioned accepted knowledge and spread new ideas about openness, investigation, and religious tolerance throughout Europe and the Americas. Many consider the Enlightenment a major turning point in Western civilization, an age of light replacing an age of darkness.
Portrait of John Locke.
Sir Godfrey Kneller, portrait of John Locke, 1697. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Several ideas dominated Enlightenment thought, including rationalism, empiricism, progressivism, and cosmopolitanism.
Rationalism is the idea that humans are capable of using their faculty of reason to gain knowledge. This was a sharp turn away from the prevailing idea that people needed to rely on scripture or church authorities for knowledge.
Empiricism promotes the idea that knowledge comes from experience and observation of the world.
Progressivism is the belief that through their powers of reason and observation, humans can make unlimited, linear progress over time; this belief was especially important as a response to the carnage and upheaval of the English Civil Wars in the 17th century.
Finally, cosmopolitanism reflected Enlightenment thinkers’ view of themselves as actively engaged citizens of the world as opposed to provincial and close-minded individuals. In all, Enlightenment thinkers endeavored to be ruled by reason, not prejudice.

Ben Franklin, symbol of the Enlightenment

The Freemasons were members of a fraternal society that advocated Enlightenment principles of inquiry and tolerance. Freemasonry originated in London coffeehouses in the early 18th century, and Masonic lodges—local units—soon spread throughout Europe and the British colonies. One prominent Freemason, Benjamin Franklin, stands as the embodiment of the Enlightenment in British America.
Born in Boston in 1706 to a large Puritan family, Franklin loved to read, although he found little beyond religious publications in his father’s house. In 1718 he was apprenticed to his brother to work in a print shop, where he learned how to be a good writer by copying the style he found in the Spectator, which his brother printed. At the age of 17, the independent-minded Franklin ran away, eventually ending up in Quaker Philadelphia. There he began publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette in the late 1720s. In 1732 he started his annual publication Poor Richard: An Almanack, in which he gave readers much practical advice, such as “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
In this 1748 portrait by Robert Feke, a 40-year-old Franklin wears a stylish British wig, as befitted a proud and loyal member of the British Empire.
Robert Feke, portrait of Benjamin Franklin, 1748. Image credit: Figure 3 in "Great Awakening and Enlightenment" by OpenStaxCollege, CC BY 4.0.
Franklin subscribed to deism, an Enlightenment-era belief in a God who created but has no continuing involvement in the world and the events within it. Deists also advanced the belief that personal morality—an individual’s moral compass, leading to good works and actions—is more important than strict church doctrines. Franklin’s deism guided his many philanthropic projects. In 1731, he established a reading library that became the Library Company of Philadelphia. In 1743, he founded the American Philosophical Society to encourage the spirit of inquiry. In 1749, he provided the foundation for the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1751, he helped found Pennsylvania Hospital.
His career as a printer made Franklin wealthy and well-respected. When he retired in 1748, he devoted himself to politics and scientific experiments. His most famous work, on electricity, exemplified Enlightenment principles. Franklin observed that lightning strikes tended to hit metal objects and reasoned that he could therefore direct lightning through the placement of metal objects during an electrical storm. He used this knowledge to advocate the use of lightning rods: metal poles connected to wires directing lightning’s electrical charge into the ground, thus saving wooden homes in cities like Philadelphia from catastrophic fires. He published his findings in 1751 in Experiments and Observations on Electricity.
Franklin also wrote of his “rags to riches” tale—his Memoir—in the 1770s and 1780s. This story laid the foundation for the American Dream of upward social mobility.

The founding of Georgia

The reach of Enlightenment thought was both broad and deep. In the 1730s, it even prompted the founding of a new colony.
Having witnessed the terrible conditions of debtors’ prison, as well as the results of releasing penniless debtors onto the streets of London, James Oglethorpe—a member of Parliament and advocate of social reform—petitioned King George II for a charter to start a new colony.
George II, understanding the strategic advantage of a British colony standing as a buffer between South Carolina and Spanish Florida, granted the charter to Oglethorpe and 20 like-minded proprietors in 1732. Oglethorpe led the settlement of the colony, which was called Georgia in honor of the king. In 1733, he and 113 immigrants arrived on the ship Anne. Over the next decade, Parliament funded the migration of 2500 settlers, making Georgia the only government-funded colonial project.
Oglethorpe’s vision for Georgia followed the ideals of the Age of Reason. He saw Georgia as a place for England’s “worthy poor” to start anew. To encourage industry, he gave each male immigrant 50 acres of land, tools, and a year’s worth of supplies. In Savannah, the Oglethorpe Plan provided for a utopia: “an agrarian model of sustenance while sustaining egalitarian values holding all men as equal.”
Oglethorpe’s vision called for alcohol and slavery to be banned. However, colonists who relocated from other colonies—especially South Carolina—disregarded these prohibitions. Despite its proprietors’ early vision of a colony guided by Enlightenment ideals and free of slavery, by the 1750s, Georgia was producing quantities of rice grown and harvested by enslaved people.

What do you think?

Which of the Enlightenment ideals—rationalism, empiricism, progressivism, or cosmopolitanism—do you think was most important to its spread?
Do you think Ben Franklin was a representative American from his time period? Why or why not?
How did the colony of Georgia reflect the ideals of the Enlightenment? Why do you think white settlers rebelled against early strictures on alcohol and slavery?

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user Richard Gao
    What is the relationship between the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening? I believe they both argued for relying less on authority and trusting one's own reasoning, but what else? They practically occured in the same period of time so there has to be some connections right?
    (17 votes)
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    • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Lora
      What is the difference between Enlightenment and Great Awakening?

      • Enlightenment was a movement started by the philosophers and scientists and it slowly trickled down to the masses whereas, Great Awakening was a movement of the masses.

      • Great Awakening was a religious and spiritual movement whereas Enlightenment was a movement that centered on scientific spirit and reasoning.

      • Great Awakening was when people woke up to the need of religion in their lives, and it embraced the downtrodden such as farmers, the blacks and the slaves. On the other hand, Enlightenment remained in the hands of the intellectuals and the scientists. DifferenceBetween.com
      (52 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Lochlainn Spencer
    So, as a Christian, am I correct in assuming that this movement steered people away from Christianity, and was an early precursor to modern secular science thinking?
    (17 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user FrozenPhoenix45
      Short answer: yes

      Long answer: It did start a downward spiral from adherence to the Christian worldview. While the Renaissance had already had a humanistic revolution, it was offset by the Reformation happening around the same time. The Enlightenment introduced the idea of deism, which is the belief in an infinite, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God who created the heavens and the earth, yet is removed from them. He is impersonal and uninvolved in the workings of His creation. Christians believe in a personal, involved God. While there are other ways that deism differs from Christianity, I won't elaborate on them all here; God is the big one.

      Anyway, yes, from deism, people (mostly atheists and agnostics) extrapolated on the its teachings and thus naturalism was born, which is the worldview that modern secular science is based off of. Naturalism was given fuel by the introduction of the supposed "science" of evolution, which gave people an excuse to not believe in God. Naturalism says that there is no God; the universe is created and run by scientific laws and processes, nothing more. While great advancements in science have been made due to naturalism, the scientific community has experienced a detriment in understanding with this new worldview (major examples being evolution and the Big Bang, which most non-Christian scientists believe in even though there is little to no evidence in support of them)

      From naturalism the views of nihilism and existentialism were born. These dropped even farther away from the Christian worldview and the idea of God.

      If you are interested in learning more on this topic, I recommend the book The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire. It is a detailed catalogue and breakdown of the basic beliefs of different worldviews as they have sprung up throughout history. Christianity, deism, and naturalism are all mentioned along with many others.

      I hope this answer helped!
      (23 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Izzy
    I have a question regarding the spread of these ideas. How did enlightenment spread? Was it by word of mouth, did technology at that time have an influence? Any help is greatly appreciated.

    (13 votes)
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    • primosaur sapling style avatar for user Goldleaf
      Some American colonists spread the enlightenment ideas through pamphlets, newspapers, and other publications. The wealthy women of Paris also held gatherings in their homes, called salons, where their peers could hear inspiring music, view art and listen to ideas and writings from great thinkers. So yes, it was spread through both the word of the mouth and through technology.
      (15 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user amcelroy15
    Where can I learn more about the ideas that the text describes as dominating Enlightenment thought, as well as the people who developed them, particularly about progressivism?
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 201.00220.14.0034
    short summmary of age of reason
    (7 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Nathan Cheng
      The Age of Reason, or more commonly known as the Enlightenment, was a movement where reason and science were valued rather than God and faith. The ideas addressed society, human rights, and the separation of powers in the government. The movement started in Europe and made its way towards the colonies. The American Revolution and articles like the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were some of the few works that were influenced by the Enlightenment.
      (1 vote)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Machen
    I think they rejected the prohibitions because they were stubborn for 1 and for 2 they liked what they had and didn't see reason for change.
    (7 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user rhett.i25
    The Enlightenment
    Question 1- I think the most important idea was rationalism. Before this idea people got their knowledge solely through the church and scripture. But rationalism told people that humans themselves can find new things and invent new technologies.
    Question 2- yes Ben Franklin was pivotal to building this country, I would definitely say he was one of the greats of his time for America. But I would also say he is was one of the most essential people to ever live in or help change America.
    Question 3- Georgia was a real life testament of the enlighten period. They took a bunch of debters who would be sitting in prison and made a prospering farming colony. I think early settlers didn’t like the strictures on slaves and alcohol because they wanted salves to work for them, and they liked to drink a lot of alcohol.
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user bmejia0049
    What was the Enlightenment, and how did it change views about nature and God?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Kimberly Noel
    SOOOO how exactly did the Enlightenment affect people's views of science? of religion? of government?
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Avonlea Brickman
    Lesson 6: Passage 1: The Enlightenment
    1. Out of the Enlightenment ideals of rationalism, empiricism, progressivism, and cosmopolitanism, I think the most important to spread would be empiricism. I say this because empiricism could get people to observe more in the world and learn new things.
    2. I think Ben Franklin was a good representative American from his time period because he sought knowledge for life and forward progress. He also had many philanthropic projects to help others grow in knowledge.
    3. The colony of Georgia reflected the Enlightenment ideals by encouraging equality and also as a way for debtors to pay off their debt. White settlers probably rebelled because 1) the reasoning could have confused some people, and 2) the settlers were used to alcohol and slavery being considered good things, not things to be banned.
    (4 votes)
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