French historians traditionally place the Enlightenment between 1715 (the year that Louis XIV died) and 1789 ( the beginning of the French Revolution). International historians begin the period in the 1620s, with the start of the scientific revolution. Les philosophes (French for “the philosophers”) of the period widely circulated their ideas through meetings at scientific academies, Masonic lodges, literary salons, coffee houses and in printed books and pamphlets. The ideas of the Enlightenment undermined the authority of the monarchy and the Church and paved the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. A variety of 19th-century movements, including liberalism and neo-classicism, trace their intellectual heritage to the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy and came to advance ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state. In France, the central doctrines of the Enlightenment philosophers were individual liberty and religious tolerance, in opposition to an absolute monarchy and the fixed dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church. The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism, along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy—an attitude captured by the phrase Sapere aude, “Dare to know”

Absolutism/National Monarchies

Absolutism or the Age of Absolutism (c. 1610 – c. 1789) is a historiographical term used to describe a form of monarchical power that is unrestrained by all other institutions, such as churches, legislatures, or social elites. Absolutism is typically used in conjunction with some European monarchs during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and monarchs described as absolute can especially be found in the 16th century through the 19th century. Absolutism is characterized by the ending of feudal partitioning, consolidation of power with the monarch, rise of state power, unification of the state laws, and a decrease in the influence of the church and the nobility.

Absolute monarchs are also associated with the rise of professional standing armies, professional bureaucracies, the codification of state laws, and the rise of ideologies that justify the absolutist monarchy. Absolutist monarchs typically were considered to have the divine right of kings as a cornerstone of the philosophy that justified their power (as opposed to the previous order when the kings were considered vassals of the pope and the emperor).

Absolute monarchs spent considerable sums on extravagant houses for themselves and their nobles. In an absolutist state, monarchs often required nobles to live in the royal palace, while state officials ruled the noble lands in their absence. This was designed to reduce the effective power of the nobility by causing nobles to become reliant upon the largesses of the monarch for their livelihoods.

There is a considerable variety of opinion by historians on the extent of absolutism among European monarchs. Some, such as Perry Anderson, argue that quite a few monarchs achieved levels of absolutist control over their states, while historians such as Roger Mettam dispute the very concept of absolutism. In general, historians who disagree with the appellation of absolutism argue that most monarchs labeled as absolutist exerted no greater power over their subjects than other non-absolutist rulers, and these historians tend to emphasize the differences between the absolutist rhetoric of monarchs and the realities of the effective use of power by these absolute monarchs. The Renaissance historian William Bouwsma summed up this contradiction: “Nothing so clearly indicates the limits of royal power as the fact that governments were perennially in financial trouble, unable to tap the wealth of those most able to pay, and likely to stir up a costly revolt whenever they attempted to develop an adequate income.”

The Age of Reason/Scientific Revolution

The Age of Enlightenment or the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, was an intellectual and philosophical movement that occurred in Europe, especially Western Europe, in the 17th and 18th centuries, with global influences and effects. The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge obtained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as natural law, liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.

The Enlightenment was preceded by the Scientific Revolution and the work of Francis Bacon and John Locke, among others. Some date the beginning of the Enlightenment to the publication of René Descartes’ Discourse on the Method in 1637, featuring his famous dictum, Cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”). Others cite the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687) as the culmination of the Scientific Revolution and the beginning of the Enlightenment. European historians traditionally date its beginning with the death of Louis XIV of France in 1715 and its end with the 1789 outbreak of the French Revolution. Many historians now date the end of the Enlightenment as the start of the 19th century, with the latest proposed year being the death of Immanuel Kant in 1804.

Philosophers and scientists of the period widely circulated their ideas through meetings at scientific academies, Masonic lodges, literary salons, coffeehouses and in printed books, journals, and pamphlets. The ideas of the Enlightenment undermined the authority of the monarchy and the Catholic Church and paved the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. A variety of 19th-century movements, including liberalism, socialism and neoclassicism, trace their intellectual heritage to the Enlightenment.

The central doctrines of the Enlightenment were individual liberty and religious tolerance, in opposition to an absolute monarchy and the fixed dogmas of the Church. The concepts of utility and sociability were also crucial in the dissemination of information that would better society as a whole. The Enlightenment was marked by an increasing awareness of the relationship between the mind and the everyday media of the world, and by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism, along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy—an attitude captured by Kant’s essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment, where the phrase Sapere aude (Dare to know) can be found.

The American Revolution/Birth of the USA

The American Revolution was an ideological and political revolution that generally occurred in British America between 1765 and 1783. In the American Revolutionary War, which lasted from 1775 to 1783, the Thirteen Colonies secured their independence from the British Crown and established the United States as the first sovereign nation state founded on Enlightenment principles of constitutionalism and liberal democracy.

American colonists objected to being taxed by the British Parliament, a body in which they had no direct representation. Prior to the 1760s, British colonial authorities afforded the colonies a relatively high level of autonomy in their internal affairs, which were locally governed by colonial legislatures. During the 1760s, however, the British Parliament passed acts that were intended to bring the American colonies under more direct rule by the British monarchy and intertwine the economies of the American colonies with Britain in ways that benefited the British monarchy and increased the colonies’ dependence on it. In 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which imposed taxes on official documents, newspapers, and most things printed in the colonies, leading to colonial protest and resulting in representatives from several colonies convening the Stamp Act Congress in New York City to plan a response. The British repealed the Stamp Act, alleviating tensions briefly but they flared again in 1767 with Parliament’s passage of the Townshend Acts, a group of new taxes and regulations imposed on the thirteen colonies.

In an effort to quell a mounting rebellion in the colonies, which was particularly severe in the colonial-era Province of Massachusetts Bay, King George III deployed troops to Boston, resulting in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. The British government then repealed most of the Townshend duties in 1770, but it retained its tax on tea in order to symbolically assert Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. The thirteen colonies responded assertively, first burning the Gaspee in Rhode Island in 1772 and then launching the Boston Tea Party in Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773, which vastly escalated tensions. The British responded by closing Boston Harbor and enacting a series of punitive laws, which effectively rescinded Massachusetts’ governing autonomy.

In late 1774, in support of Massachusetts, twelve of the thirteen colonies sent delegates to Philadelphia, where they formed the First Continental Congress and began coordinating resistance to Britain’s colonial governance. Opponents of Britain were known as “Patriots” or “Whigs”, and colonists who retained allegiance to the Crown were known as “Loyalists” or “Tories.” In early 1775, the British monarchy declared Massachusetts to be in a state of open defiance and rebellion, and it sent an order to have American patriots disarmed. American patriot Paul Revere, a member of the Sons of Liberty, developed a plan to alert patriot militiamen across the Charles River in Boston of any potentially threatening movements by British troops in the region. On April 18, 1775 two patriots, John Pulling Jr. and Robert Newman, hung two lanterns from the steeple of Old North Church to signal to patriots in Charlestown that British troops were approaching “by sea” across the Charles River, rather than “by land.” This signal prompted the response of patriot militias.

On April 19, 1775, tensions between the British Army and patriot militiamen escalated to open warfare, launching the American Revolutionary War, when British troops were sent to capture a cache of military supplies and were confronted by American patriots at Lexington and Concord. On June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia responded by authorizing formation of the Continental Army and appointed George Washington as its commander-in-chief. In an early victory for the Americans, Washington and the Continental Army engaged British forces in the Siege of Boston, forcing them to withdraw by sea. Each of the thirteen colonies also formed their own Provincial Congress, assuming power from former British-controlled colonial governments. The Provincial Congresses suppressed Loyalists and contributed to the Continental Army. The Patriots unsuccessfully attempted to invade northeastern Quebec in an attempt to rally sympathetic colonists there during the winter of 1775–1776, but were more successful in the southwestern parts of the colony.

At Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress declared King George III a tyrant who trampled the colonists’ rights as Englishmen. On July 2, 1776, the Congress passed the Lee Resolution, which declared that the colonies considered themselves “free and independent states”. Two days later, on July 4, 1776, the Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence, which was principally authored by Thomas Jefferson, a member of the Committee of Five charged by Congress with its development. The Declaration of Independence embodied the political philosophies of liberalism and republicanism, rejected monarchy and aristocracy, and famously proclaimed that “all men are created equal”. The issuance of the Declaration, which was deemed an act of treason by King George III, immediately formalized and escalated the Revolutionary War.

In the summer of 1776, in a setback for American patriots, the British captured New York City and its strategic harbor. In September 1777, in anticipation of a coordinated attack by the British Army on the revolutionary capital of Philadelphia, the Continental Congress was forced to depart Philadelphia temporarily for Baltimore, where they continued deliberations at Henry Fite House, and protected the Liberty Bell from the British by covertly relocating it to Zion United Church of Christ in Allentown, where it was successfully hidden under the church’s floorboards for nine months.

In October 1777, the Continental Army experienced a significant victory, capturing British troops at the Battle of Saratoga. Following the victory in the Saratoga campaign, France then entered the war as an ally of the Continental Army and the cause of American independence, which expanded the Revolutionary War into a global conflict. The British Royal Navy blockaded ports and held New York City for the duration of the war, and other cities for brief periods, but failed in their effort to destroy Washington’s forces. Britain’s priorities shifted southward, attempting to hold the Southern states with the anticipated aid of Loyalists that never materialized. British general Charles Cornwallis captured Continental Army troops at Charleston, South Carolina in early 1780, but he failed to enlist enough volunteers from Loyalist civilians to take effective control of the territory. A combined American and French force captured Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown in the fall of 1781, effectively securing an American victory and end to the war. On September 3, 1783, the British signed the Treaty of Paris in which they acknowledged the independence and sovereignty of the thirteen colonies, and led to the formation of the United States, which took possession of nearly all the territory east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes, including southern Canada, while the British retained control of northern Canada, and French ally Spain took back Florida.

Among the significant results of the American victory were American independence and the end of British mercantilism in America, opening up worldwide trade for the United States, including resumption of it with Britain. Around 60,000 Loyalists migrated to other British territories in Canada and elsewhere, but the great majority remained in the United States. In 1787, at the Congress of the Confederation in Philadelphia, American delegates authorized and states then ratified the United States Constitution, which replaced the weaker wartime Articles of Confederation and took effect March 4, 1789. It provided for a relatively strong national government structured as a federal republic, including an elected executive, a national judiciary, and an elected bicameral Congress representing states in the Senate and the population in the House of Representatives. With its victory in the American Revolution, the United States became the first federal democratic republic in world history founded on the consent of the governed. In 1791, a Bill of Rights was ratified as the first ten amendments, guaranteeing fundamental rights used as justification for the revolution. Subsequent amendments, including the Reconstruction Amendments, the Nineteenth Amendment, and others, extended those rights to minorities and women.

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