As Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur wrote in his classic Letters from an American Farmer (1782), the American pioneer farmer “finds himself suddenly deprived of the assistance of friends, neighbors, tradesmen, and of all those inferior links which make a well-established society so beautiful and pleasing. He and his family are now alone. On their courage, perseverance, and skill their success depends.”
The Age of Reason
The Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, began in Europe with the rationalist philosophers and scientists of the seventeenth century.
Rationalism is the belief that we can arrive at truth by using our reason rather than by relying on the authority of the past, on religious faith, or on intuition.
The emergence of modern science and the scientific method had much to do with this new emphasis on reason and free inquiry.
The Puritans vs…
Sir Isaac Newton (God as a clockmaker),
René Descartes ( “I think, therefore I am.”),
and John Locke.
John Locke 1632-1704
Man is inherently good
The ideal government is a representative
Government is necessary
People need to compromise on some issues for
betterment of the people
Government is a social contract amongst the people
The Age of Reason in America
American pragmatism, exemplified by the story of Cotton Mather, was characterized by an interest in the public welfare and a willingness to experiment, to try things out, no matter what the authorities might say.
The Age of Reason in America, then, combined common sense with ideas from European thinkers.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau -1712-1778
Man is best when he is unshackled by society
To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man,
to surrender the rights of humanity and even its
Liberty is obedience to the law which one has laid
down for oneself
Age of Reason in America
From this mixture of ideas and outlooks came much of the triumph of eighteenth-century American life:
the inventive and curious minds of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson;
and the thinking behind the important statement “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
Deism and the Rationalist Mind
It seemed unlikely to rationalist thinkers that God would choose to reveal Himself only at particular times to particular people. It seemed much more reasonable to believe that God had made it possible for all people at all times to discover natural laws through their God-given faculty of reason.
American deists came from different religious backgrounds.
Deists believed that the universe was orderly and good.
In contrast to the Puritans, deists stressed humanity’s inherent goodness.
They believed in the perfectability of every individual through the use of reason.
God’s objective, in the deist view, was the happiness of His
Therefore, the best form of worship was to do good for others.
Deism and the Founding Fathers
Although a strongly emotional brand of religion, known as the Great Awakening, was flourishing; nevertheless, the rationalist point of view was shared, in varying degrees, by the Founding Fathers.
It provided the basis for the principles of the American Revolution and for our system of government.
Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence based its arguments on the same rationalist assumptions about the relations between people, God, and the natural law.
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was such an appeal. Published in 1776, it was the most influential of many Revolutionary pamphlets and was read by virtually every American within months of its appearance. The very phrase common sense had come to mean the reasoning ability that all people share. Paine argued that we should seek independence in order to restore the natural rights that were evident to our reason but that had been taken away from the British. “’Tis repugnant to reason,” he wrote, “to the universal order of things, to all examples from former ages, to suppose that this continent can long remain subject to any external power.”
-from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography
“I never doubted the existence of the deity, that He made the world, and governed it with His providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished and virtue rewarded either here or hereafter; these I esteemed the essentials of every religion, and being to be found in all the religions we had in our country I respected them all.”
The Federalist Papers, written by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, may be thought of as the pamphlet written in its highest form. Following the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the problems of organizing and governing the new nation were of the highest importance
These essays explain the ideas behind our Constitution.
American poetry was unoriginal, often written in direct imitation of British models. Many poems and ballads ridiculed the British and urged Americans to take political action.
Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography
The unquestioned masterpiece of the Age of Reason
Franklin used the personal narrative, a form that was common in Colonial America. He separated it from much of its religious justification (the Puritan impulse toward self-examination). Then he molded it into what became a classic American pattern: the rags-to-riches story.
Ben Franklin – Age of Reason
Written in clear, witty prose, this charming account of the development of a self-made American provided the model for a story that would be told again and again. It appears in the moralistic stories about the office boy by Horatio Alger and in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
With the exception of Franklin’s Autobiography, however, the many calls for an American literary independence to accompany its political independence were premature. The seeds had been sown, but the true flowering of American literature was still several generations in the future.
Jean de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer
“What then is the American, this new man? . . . He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigor, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle.”
Anderson, Robert, et al. Elements of Literature. Fifth Course. Literature of the United States. Austin: Holt, Rinhart and Winston, Inc., 1989.