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

Overview

  • 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?
This article is a modified derivative of "Great Awakening and Enlightenment" by OpenStaxCollege, CC BY 4.0.
The modified article is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
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