New Ideas Influence a Revolution

Enlightenment ideas spread throughout the colonies and had a major impact on many colonists supporting the Revolutionary cause. The Enlightenment began in the 1600's in Europe with philosophers from Britain, France and other European countries. Their ideas promoted social change and questioned traditional leadership. This led to many revolutions throughout the period and created a sense of empowerment among citizens who were unhappy with their government. With the rise of the printing press, Enlightenment ideas spread to the American colonies in the 1700’s. These ideas influenced prominent philosophers in the colonies to write essays, almanacs and pamphlets that encouraged colonists to adopt Enlightenment beliefs in freedom, justice, and liberty.

“Two Treatises of Government” was an essay written in 1689 by John Locke. Locke was an English philosopher and one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. His two part essay criticizes monarchy as a total power.

Locke argued that all men are created equal in the state of nature by God and reasons that the only legitimate governments are those that have the consent of the people. Therefore, any government that rules without the consent of the people can, in theory, be overthrown. Clearly, this was a radical proposal at the time because of how it could inspire people to overthrow the English Crown.

“Poor Richard’s Almanack” was written by Benjamin Franklin. The almanac was published yearly and included a calendar, weather predictions, business and financial advice, and sayings. Some of Benjamin Franklin’s sayings were influential to developing thoughts and ideas among the colonies. One such saying, “Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor liberty to purchase power” was an important message due to the fact that Britain was exerting more and more control over the colonies. Benjamin Franklin believed the colonies should unite together against British rule.  Because many people could not afford books, the almanac served as literature for the masses and many people were exposed to these ideas.

“Common Sense” was a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine that was published in 1776. In this pamphlet Thomas Paine condemned monarchy and urged colonists to declare independence and create their own form of government. Paine appealed to many people with his pamphlet.

He stated that Britain was not protecting the colonies and that the New World was an asylum for the persecuted. Paine felt that the government should protect life, liberty and property. He believed that people would be happier if they were responsible for the laws that ruled them and so colonies should set up a democratic republic free from England.

Many of Paine’s ideas were far ahead of his time. He advocated for a comprehensive program of state support for the population to ensure the welfare of society, including subsidies for poor people, state-financed universal public education, and state-sponsored prenatal care and postnatal care. Recognizing that a person's "labor ought to be over" before old age, Paine also called for a state pension to all workers starting at age 50. However, his "fervent objections to slavery" led to his exclusion from power during the early years of America, when slaveholders from Virginia and the South held power.