On July 4, 1776 a bunch of angry men meeting in Philadelphia made public one of the most important documents in the history of the world. It has become known as the Declaration of Independence, and its opening sentences read:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
I am sure that many of you have heard these words before. But how many of you have actually stopped to consider just how ridiculous they are? Look around your world today, and it becomes clear that we are not all created equal. Some people are smarter than others, some more athletic, some better looking, some harder working. And what about this notion of rights given to us by God?
This text seems all the more preposterous, when we consider when it was written. At the moment that Britain’s North American colonies declared their independence there was not one single national democracy in the entire world. There were some vaguely democratic city-states in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, but most of them had degenerated into oligarchies by the eighteenth century. Looking around Europe we see kings everywhere, in places such as Denmark, Sweden, Russia, and France. In Britain, parliament was powerful, but the king was still that nation’s key political institution. If we look to areas such as Africa and Asia during the same period we see nothing but hereditary, unelected leaders. Moreover, in Mexico, central, and South America the Spanish monarchy held sway. In general, monarchy was unquestioned around the globe in 1776.
This seems like a dour picture, and from our modern perspective it is. But were you able to travel into the past and ask the average person what form of government they thought was best, you would likely get a stupid look and some simple answers. Of course, people should live under kings. That is how it has always been. Moreover, people don’t have rights, but privileges that are associated with their birth and station. And what would be the point of changing these things? What I am describing here are the social, political, and intellectual arrangements that people in the late eighteenth century came to call the ancien régime, or old regime. This term is a useful one for understanding two things: first, the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence and in France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man changed how people thought about government and its relationship to the people; second, the American Revolution and then, later, the French Revolution altered how people thought about the past. The ancien régime was old. Looking back on the past from the perspective of the American and French revolutions, people began to see the old order as something whose time had passed. Modern people were on the other side of an unbridgeable divide. So now let us go back over this divide and consider how the old regime organized. Since we have already discussed France’s history in some detail, I will use it as a familiar model.
As you know, before the Revolution of 1789 France was divided into three orders: the nobility, which was called the first estate; the clergy, the second estate; and then everybody else, the third estate. Above all three was the king. France’s system of government was based on a theoretical balance among the various estates. The French legislative body, called the estates-general gave each order one vote. The nobility and the clergy usually voted together, which meant that the third estate rarely had any say in anything. And since some 99% of the population belonged to the third estate, pre-revolutionary France could hardly qualify as a democracy. Moreover, since the king’s interests were usually bound up with those of the nobility and the clergy, the third estate’s interests were rarely defended, at best. Now, add to this system the sheer inertia of tradition and history. In 1787, the year the Constitution of the United States was written, the French could look back (in theory) to eight hundred years of monarchy. (The first French monarchs, the Capetians, were crowned in 987.) So if, in 1776, the average Frenchman was a monarchist, it was because any other form of government was simply inconceivable.
The men—and they were exclusively men—the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence are heroes to many people today, particularly Americans. They were, however, renegades from all the world’s then-accepted traditions. That we have come to accept many of their ideas about the need for citizens to have basic rights vis-à-vis their governments does not change the fact that very few people would have agreed with them back then. What I want you to understand is that the Declaration of Independence is a modern myth—a glorious one, perhaps—but a myth, nonetheless. The American vision of government of by and for the people was constructed. That is, it was created by people who sought their own best advantage. The ideas in the text, the assumptions it harbors about the nature of God and Man, were all products of a particular time and place. Both the people involved and their ideas are rooted in their experiences, and the central experience I want to highlight for the Declaration is the movement known as the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was a broad eighteenth-century intellectual movement. It appeared in many different countries, such as Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, and Switzerland, and the British Colonies in North America. If we are to characterize it most broadly, we can say that it had two core beliefs. First, the Enlightenment believed in the power of reason. The human being had been given reason by God, which meant that people had not merely the right but also the duty to exercise their minds and render critical judgments of the world around them. In 1781, for example, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in Critique of Pure Reason, “Our age is, in especial degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit.”
Second, the Enlightenment believed fervently in progress. Looking back on a medieval past from their glorious age, the men of the eighteenth century remarked on their distance and separation from the past. European cities were wealthier and ran better. There was a livelier social life, as salons, coffee houses, and social clubs sprouted everywhere. The people were more educated and refined. Education was no longer a province of the wealthy nobility alone. And in matters of religion people were only beginning to free themselves from thousands of years of Christian superstition. At least that is how France’s philosophes, the French term for a member of the Enlightenment, saw things. The great French man of the Enlightenment Voltaire, for example, attacked religion with his famous battle cry, écrasez l’infame, or destroy the infamous thing, by which he meant the church. For the men of the Enlightenment, there was a God, but he never did anything as silly as send his son to be crucified, forbid Jews to eat pork, or send the archangel Gabriel to chat with Mohammed. The Enlightenment’s God was a master architect, a benevolent, rational creator of the stunning and marvelous universe in which man found himself. God had given man reason, and now man must use his reason to understand the mysteries and glories of this divine world. Thus far, I have spoken of the Enlightenment in very broad terms. Now, however, I want to locate it more specifically in time and place. The Enlightenment was not merely an eighteenth-century movement; its roots go back far into the seventeenth century, and extend into many countries. For our purposes, however, we will say that the Enlightenment began in England with the publication of two major works. The first is Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, which appeared in 1687. The second is John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which appeared in 1690.
Why are these texts so important? The Principia offered a wholly new way of understanding the universe. Newton’s law of universal gravitation not only explained how the planets moved, but also allowed predictions to be made of future behavior. For example, using Newton’s methods, scientists could now predict with a relative degree of certainty where planets would be in the sky, and could also explain how the planets interacted. Locke’s text provided a wholly physical explanation of human cognition. For Locke, all knowledge began in the senses, and human ideas were based on the acquisition and contemplation of sense experience. This was important, because it separated the human mind from God. Human beings did not get their knowledge directly from their creator, but within the world that He had made for them. Thus, both Newton and Locke justified a sense of independence from God and human tradition. If human reason could unlock the universe’s laws, then it could also tell us how to organize societies and maybe even governments. This was a completely new conception of authority, and it would have important effects on eighteenth-century thought, as Newtonianism traveled to the Continent, where it sparked further debates and investigations that ran through the eighteenth century.
Having located the Enlightenment’s origins in time, let us now consider where the Enlightenment was to be found in European society. Put most simply, the Enlightenment was rooted in two developments: the rise of print, and the development of sociability. First, print. We have already seen in Newton and Locke that books were important to cultural developments in the seventeenth century. From 1650 onward a large market in books and journals developed across Europe, as people began to demand different forms of entertainment. Having a Bible and a catechism on the shelf was no longer enough. This was rooted, in part, in Europe’s increasing wealth; some people now had enough money to buy more than one book, or even to subscribe to a newspaper or journal. Books and journals could, and did, travel far and wide across Europe, affecting minds in places that would have remained isolated without access to print. A classic example of this development is Immanuel Kant, who was a professor of philosophy at the University of Königsberg, a small city on the Baltic in what was then called East Prussia. (Now it is called Kaliningrad and is part of Russia.) Kant received almost all of his news from a local bookseller, and would visit the bookseller’s shop once per week to check out the latest arrivals.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that print was merely one way that ideas moved around Europe at the time. Also important was the increase in what we today call sociability. Across Europe, people began to associate in new ways and forms. For example, coffee shops and reading clubs began to appear in England at the end of the seventeenth century and then moved eastward. Here, people read the latest news or books, drank their coffee, and then talked about what they thought, especially on matters of religion and politics. One English commentator observed already in the seventeenth century that, “Coffee politicians does create.” By the end of the seventeenth century coffee houses had spread throughout England and Scotland and were moving onto the Continent.
Nonetheless, there were other means of meeting people and chatting with them about politics and literature. In France and Germany, two forms of association were especially important, the salon and the Freemasonic lodge. Wealthy women usually ran salons out of their homes. A famous example was Louise Épinay, known as Madame d’Épinay, who set up a famous literary salon, whose visitors included such luminaries as Denis Diderot, Friedrich de Grimm, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In general, the hostess invited people to discuss the latest topics in a relatively free environment. This encouraged constant chatter and criticism, though only some of it was to be taken seriously. The Abbé Galiani, an Italian living in Paris and a member of Madame d’Épinay’s circle, is a perfect example. In just one conversation he could move from denigrating the latest poetry to commenting on military theory to attacking the Jesuits, while still having time to criticize a local singer, Sophie Arnould, for having the finest asthma he had ever heard. From there he once went on to describe his boss, the Neapolitan ambassador, as stupid and lazy, which was a good thing, he thought, since having an ambassador that was stupid and energetic would be a disaster.
Freemasonic lodges were a more closed than the salons. In particular, they did not usually admit women, whereas, in salons women were at the center of the debate. These lodges were, however, widespread and important, for here wealthy mean came together to chat about politics and the latest books and ideas. It was, therefore, no accident that many revolutionary leaders in both France and the British Colonies had also been Freemasons.
The presence of these new meeting places highlights two important themes for understanding the Enlightenment and the eighteenth century. First, the Enlightenment was rooted in an increasingly wealthy society. Money from European trade and exploration made possible the creation of a more dynamic social and intellectual life. Second, within this new intellectual world people who probably would never have met before could chat as equals. The society of orders came to appear old as more and more people of different orders were able to interact independently of their origins.
So what does all this mean? The basic ideas that we find expressed in the American Declaration of Independence are products of the eighteenth century’s economic, social, and intellectual environments. Thomas Jefferson, who was the Declaration’s author, was a product of the Enlightenment. His interest in European literature and philosophy was second to none on the British colonies. An extraordinarily educated and intelligent man—indeed he is probably the only true genius to have been a political leader in Europe or the United States—Thomas Jefferson’s text is, nonetheless, a list of beliefs about the world. The Declaration of Independence is a confession of faith that was based on this new enlightened worldview. Jefferson believed in the power of reason to change the world, and a revolution was the result.