The Primary Ideals of the Enlightenment in Terms of Politics and Constitutionalism

The Enlighten writers known as the philosophes called for a “political order that would be secular, reasonable, humane, pacific, open and free.” (1 ) Further, this political order would have “freedom in its many forms; freedom from arbitrary power, freedom of speech, freedom of trade . . . freedom in a word, of moral man to make his own way in the world.”(2)  Of course, none of these ideas sprang, Athena-like, from the heads of the Enlightenment philosophers but were rather developed over time, from the mid-17th Century to the late 18th Century.

It can be said that the Enlightenment’s ideal of politics and government started with Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.(3) Having seen firsthand the destruction that civil war can cause Hobbes was trying to come to a scientifically political (4) conclusion to avoid a state “where every man is enemy to every man” and avoid a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”(5) Even though the later philosophes, at least tacitly, rejected Hobbes’ absolutism (6) in favor of representative republic as the best form of government, (7) but it is acknowledged Hobbes essential was the first to articulate the classic idea of the social contract.(8)

In the social contract for Hobbes, the citizen or subject surrenders, or alienates, all his rights to the sovereign in exchange for peace and security.(9)  The next great political thinker of the Enlightenment, John Locke, responded that all men had inalienable rights. These rights are the ones that no government may take en masse.(10)  These inalienable rights are, of course, life, liberty and property.(11)

Based on these natural rights and the view that all humans are rational, Locke argued for a constitutional state. For Locke, the constitutional state was not an unlimited democracy, but rather was a limited state characterized by the rule of law, separation of powers, legislative control of taxes, and an independent judiciary.(12)  It is to this type of constitutional state that the reasonable person gives their tacit consent and thereby joins in the social contract.(13)  It is with Locke that the Enlightenment saw the transition, still using the social contact, from an absolutist state theory to a constitutional-republican state theory.  Montesquieu also supported a limited state with separate powers between the three branches as the best state for the expression of personal liberty. (14) Rousseau thought that the social contract was best expressed in the “general will” of the citizen body and that the best political state to express this “general will” was a small republic similar to the ancient Greek city-states or his adopted city of Geneva. (15)   Of course, the social contract theory had its criticism; most well-known is Hume’s Of The Original Contract, which attacked it on historical grounds. (16)

Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau were very hardheaded than when it came to a practical political program.  Just as Hobbes was deeply affected by the English Civil Wars of the mid 17th Century, so Locke was affected by the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  Indeed Locke’s writings supported the Revolution Settlement of 1688 between Parliament and William of Orange, crowned King William III of England and the subsequent Bill of Rights of 1698, which paved the way for a true constitutional monarchy. (17)

It is perhaps one of the ironies of history that the ideas of Locke and the Bill of Rights of 1698, lead to significant loss of power and prestige to the country that nurtured them.  Because it was to secure these rights as Englishmen that the American Revolution was started.  It was only later that the Second Constitutional Congress declared independence and asserted that the war was for the establishment of a new country that would secure American citizens their natural rights. (18) Jefferson’s devotion to the Locke is clear in the famous preamble to the Declaration of Independence here he paraphrased “life, liberty and property” into “life, liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  This seemingly minor change actually expanded natural rights from the mere owning of “estate” into the mental realm of potential happiness. (19)

In the area of politics and constitutionalism the Enlightenment reached its apotheosis with the American Constitution.  Not only was it written, at least in part, by a genuine philosophe; Benjamin Franklin, but it embodied in a way never done before, the dreamed of Enlightened political order.  The American Constitution, along with the Bill of Rights, enshrined in a difficult to change, written document, the natural rights of human beings.  It created, at least in part, a mobile and dynamic society that was political stable but was also, as listed above, “secular, reasonable, and humane.   .  . open and free.”  However, the American Constitution was by no means “pacific,” in fact; it has been called a “fighting document”. (20) But otherwise the American Republic fit the bill nicely for that long sought after enlightened political order where freedom reigned.

In conclusion, even though it seems that the Enlightenment ideals of political freedom, democracy and republicanism nearly disappeared in the blood and death of the French Revolution’s Terror and the tyranny of Napoleon.  The opposite can said to have actually happened, because of the Enlightenment all of these political ideals have been placed “irrevocably on the Western agenda.”(21)

1 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1969), 397.

2 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Rise of Modern Paganism, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1966), 3.

3 James R. Jacob, The Scientific Revolution: Aspirations and Achievements, 1500-1700 (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999), 97.


5Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter XIII (1651) texts/ hobbes/leviathan-c.html (accessed 28 June, 2010).

6Jacob, The Scientific Revolution, 99.

7Robert B. Louden, The World We Want: How and Why the Ideals of the Enlightenment still Elude Us. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 87-88.

8Jacob, The Scientific Revolution, 99.

9David Gauthier, “Hobbes Social Contract,” in The Social Contract Theorists: Critical Essays on Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, ed. Christopher W. Morris (Lanham, MD: Rowman &Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999), 68-69.

10 A. John Simmons, “Locke’s State of Nature,” in The Social Contract Theorists: Critical Essays on Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, ed. Christopher W. Morris (Lanham, MD: Rowman &Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999), 106.

11 John Locke, An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government , sec. 87, (1696) (accessed 28 June, 2010).

12 Joshua Cohen, “Structure, Choice and Legitimacy: Locke’s theory of the State,”  in The Social Contract Theorists: Critical Essays on Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, ed. Christopher W. Morris (Lanham, MD: Rowman &Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 1999), 143-144.

13 E. Jonathan Lowe,  Locke. (New York: Routledge, 2005), 173.

14 Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, trans. Thomas Nugent. (1752) Book 11, Section 6 at (accessed 18 July 2010)

15 Marvin Perry, Myrna Chase, James R. Jacob, Margaret C. Jacob, Theodore H. Von Laue, Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society. (New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Harcourt Publishing Co., 2009), 430-431.

16 David Hume, Of The Original Contract. (1748), origcont.htm  (accessed 28 June, 2010).

17 Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization: Since 1500, 7th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2009), 473-474.

18 Charles Howard McIlwain, The American Revolution: a Constitutional Interpretation. (Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2005), 19-22.

19 George M. Stephens, Locke, Jefferson, and the Justices: Foundations and Failures of the US Government. (New York: Algora Publishing, 2002), 13.

20 Geoffrey Perret, A Country Made by War: from the Revolution to Vietnam: the Story of America’s Rise to Power. (New York: Random House, 1989), 79.

21 Margaret C. Jacob, The Enlightenment: a Brief History with Documents. (New York: Bedford-St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 68.


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