Today we are going to introduce the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment – a time in Europe and in North America where educated people looked to science and reason, not religion, to solve the world’s problems. Philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke came up with recommendations on how best to structure and design a government. These recommendations had a big impact on government in England, in America and in France.
Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematical (published in 1687) may be the first great work of the Enlightenment. In that book, Newton used mathematical models to describe and predict the operation of forces in the universe, especially gravity. He did this with human reason and no reference to a God or gods. While this is standard practice in science today, in 1687 it was revolutionary. Newton himself, as he liked to say, "stood on the shoulders of giants” – geniuses like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes who did their work in the first half of the Seventeenth Century.
Rene Descartes was born in France and lived all over Europe during his lifetime in the 17th Century, He moved so frequently because his ideas faced strong opposition from the Catholic Church. Descartes believes that there are things in the world that are universally true for everyone (think about things like mathematical proofs and theorems). These universal truths can be understood through the application of the human mind, through logic and reason. Once we understand these great universal truths, we can then work down from there to understand the rest of the world (this is what I mean by saying Descartes was a “top-down” thinker). This belief that the human mind is the tool with which we can unlock the great secrets of the universe from the top down is known as “rationalism”.
Bacon lives and works at the same time as Descartes. Bacon rejects the idea of universal truths that can be understood with the mind alone. For Bacon, truth requires hard work. You have to get out there and observe and collect data, you have to use that data to accept or reject hypotheses regarding what is or isn’t true. Bacon helps found the scientific method and his bottom-up philosophy will become known as empiricism. Note that empiricism doesn’t immediately lead us to universal truth like the rationalism of Descartes. Empiricism only gives us a version of the truth –a version that we make more and more accurate over time as we collect more data and refine our theories. Also note that both rationalism and empiricism allow humans to understand the univese without any God or religion to guide them. These philosophies are completely based on humans and human abilities.
In the Dark Ages, England was an absolute monarchy. As the Dark Ages became the Middle Ages, the powerful nobles, the aristocrats, tried to find ways to constrain the king’s absolute power. In 1215, the English nobles forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, giving the nobles certain rights and putting limits on the powers of the King. The story of Robin Hood represents how unhappy the nobles were with the absolute rule of an evil, selfish king.
As England moves forward after Magna Carta, the King loses more and more power, with Parliament (a representative legislature) gaining power, resulting in England becoming a constitutional monarchy. By the 1600’s, Parliament contains two Houses or Chambers. One, the House of Lords, is made up only of the nobles. The other, the House of Commons, contains normal people elected by the English citizens. It should be noted: only English men of property were allowed to vote. Universal (male) suffrage won’t exist in England until the 1800’s.
The English Civil War (also known as the “Great Rebellion”) occurred when supporters of the King, Charles I (known as “Cavaliers”) fought against the supporters of Parliament. At stake was practical control over the government of England. At the heart of the dispute was taxation. The King needed the cooperation of Parliament to collect his taxes – but in return, the elected representatives wanted more control in how their tax money was spent and how their government was run. For over a decade, Charles I refused to summon or consult with Parliament. When the Parliament was finally called, they refused to be disbanded by order of the King (the “Long Parliament”). Another issue was religion – Charles I was thought to be sympathetic to Catholics (his wife, the Queen, was Catholic) and this was very unpopular with the Parliamentarians.
Oliver Cromwell is the leader of the Parliamentarians and he is the one that signs that order to execute Charles I. Cromwell becomes “Lord Protector” of England, a quasi-kinglike position that he will occupy until his death in 1658. Cromwell had a religious conversion as a younger man and became a devout Puritan. This makes him popular n the Puritan colony of Massachusetts and very unpopular in the southern colonies, where the Church of England is dominant. Virginia will gladly receive thousands of Cavalier exiles after the Civil War is over. Cromwell focuses on healing and rebuilding England and leaves the American colonies to their typical condition of salutary neglect.
Charles II is brought back as King after the Cavaliers regain power from the Puritans after the death of Cromwell. Charles II literally “retcons” away all evidence of the English Republic under the Lord Protector Cromwell and throws out all laws passed after the death of his father, Charles I. All is again as t once was. For our story, one critical thing happens because of the Restoration – the Province of Carolina is given as a gift to eight wealthy nobleman who suported the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England. The name “Carolina” comes from the Latin “Carolus”, meaning “Charles”.
Born in 1588, Hobbes is influenced by the early empiricist Francis Bacon. Hobbes rejects the Aristotelian belief that man is naturally made to live cooperatively in a government. Hobbes believes that man is naturally solitary and predatory and that in a state of nature, there is a “war of every man against every man”. The only way to maintain peace is for a powerful sovereign to take over and enforce peace through threat of force. The king says: “If you submit, I will not kill you.” These ideas, set forth in his book Leviathan (1651), advocate for a strong monarchy as the best form of government. Hobbes supported Charles I but then switched to Cromwell, when Cromwell proved himself more powerful. When Charles II was restored, Hobbes stayed out of favor until his death.
In 1689 and 1690, Locke releases two Treatises on Government. In the first, he argues against the Divine Right of Kings, seen by many as a normal, reasonable position on the nature of government. The argument put forward was that monarchs were like fathers, who had the same power over their subjects as a father would have over his children. It was connected to religion by pointing out that such patriarchal power was first given by God to Adam. Locke attacked the hereditary aspect of monarchy, which again, is something we find repugnant today. But - are we being hypocrites?. We find hereditary power in government to be wrong-headed - but have no problem with hereditary power in business. Politically, we don’t let children inherit their parent’s power - but economically, we not only let it happen, we encourage it and think it normal.
Locke carries on the idea of the social contract from Hobbes. This is the belief that government exists because people have banded together and given up some of their own power and self-control to a government to improve their condition. For Hobbes, the people were giving up that power to a sovereign who had not taken part in this negotiation. So the king owed the people nothing and was not part of the contract. For Locke, the people gave their consent to be governed - and that consent could be withdrawn if the government failed to respect the rights of the people it governed. For Locke, this usually meant confiscation of property without permission. Locke believed that people were born with inherent natural rights that, contrasted with legal rights, could never be taken from them. The phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence is taken from Locke’s ideas about natural rights.
Mary was the daughter of King James II. She was the heir presumptive to the English throne and she was married to a Dutch nobleman, William of Orange. When James II had a son, Mary was no longer directly in line for the throne. This, combined with popular resentment towards the Catholic-leaning James II caused many prominent English politicians and nobles to reach out to William and invite him to make his claim on the English throne, promising him the support of the nobles and Parliament. This nearly-bloodless Revolution is an excellent example of consent pf the governed. The English withdrew their consent from James II and for all practical purposes, hired another King, more to their liking.
To protect themselves against the power of the King, Parliament made William(and Mary, pictured here) agree to a Bill of Rights for the English people. This limited the power of the monarchy and identified certain natural rights that could not be taken away from the English people. The English Bill of Rights was heavily influenced by the ideas of John Locke and this belief in a government of limited powers and of the people possessing inalienable natural rights would heavily influence the Founding Fathers during the American Revolution a century later.
It is instructive to compare the government of England in 1700 with that of the other leading European power, France. In France, the King was the absolute ruler of his empire. His signature on a document could imprison or execute any of his subjects without a trial. The King of France at this time, Louis the Fourteenth, was known as the “Sun King” and he had centralized all power in France under his personal control. He famously said: l'état, c'est moi – meaning “I AM the State”. Contrast this to England where the King’s power is not absolute, but restrained by Parliament and the English Bill of Rights. England had a worldwide reputation in 1700 for being the only country where the ideas of Locke regarding consent of the governed and natural rights were honored.
blog comments powered by Disqus