The American eighteenth century—often called the Revolutionary or Early National period because it coincided with the establishment of the soon-to-be United States—was one punctuated by warfare and nation building. The country’s first major experience with warfare in the century came with the French and Indian War. Part of the broader Seven Years War, this North American phase began in 1754 with territorial disputes over the upper Ohio River Valley by traders and settlers of New France and traders and setters of the Virginia and Pennsylvania colonies. The dispute escalated when both territories established forts in the area and escalated again when they called their respective mother countries into the argument. The fight between the colonies was another extension of the historic enmity between France and England and was also mirrored by enmities between different Native American tribes who allied themselves to the side which best served their interests and desire to defeat rival tribes. The North American phase of the war concluded in 1760. The larger conflict was not settled until 1763, and France was compelled to cede Canada and lands east of the Mississippi to England.
American colonies’ participation in the French and Indian War affected the American Revolution in two ways: American militias gained valuable military experience that was put to use in the later conflict, and American dissatisfaction with England erupted once they started getting the bills from the war. The British government and public felt that it was only right that the American colonists help pay the costs of conducting the French and Indian War since it was on their behalf. The American colonists disagreed since they had no representation in the government that decided what to tax and how much. American resentment of and resistance to England peaked with the so-called Intolerable Acts of 1774, which added the insult of usurped governance to the injury of taxation. Among other things, the Intolerable Acts closed the port of Boston until the tea destroyed in the Boston Tea Party was repaid. It also put the Massachusetts government under direct British control and required American colonists to quarter the British soldiers there to enforce that control. In response, all the colonies with the exception of Georgia convened the First Continental Congress and sent a Declaration of Rights and Grievances to England in late 1774. England’s reply was to send troops to put down colonial resistance, and the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775 initiated the American Revolutionary War.
Soon after those battles, the colonists set about establishing a government. The Second Continental Congress met to draft the Articles of Confederation. Codifying a loose connection among sovereign states with a limited central government, the Articles also established the new name of the country and a bicameral federal legislature, one side with representation proportionate to population and the other with equal representation. Completed in 1777 and finally ratified in 1781, the Articles proved to be problematic after peace with England was officially declared with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. While the new Congress had the power to pass laws, it lacked the power to enforce them, and it became clear within four years of nationhood that a new plan was needed.
When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, they all agreed to the rule of secrecy—no details of the new Constitution would be leaked until the draft was complete and offered to the states for ratification. It was only when the draft was released in 1789 that the national debate about its principles began in earnest. Two major positions quickly coalesced. The Federalists, who included George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, supported the Constitution as written, favoring a strong central government composed of executive and judicial branches added to the legislative branch and relatively weaker state governments. Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry were leery of the consolidation of power by a federal government headed by a President, arguing that the Constitution replicated a system like the one from which they had just separated. They wanted strong state governments because they thought states would be more likely to protect individual freedoms. Anti-federalists ultimately influenced the new form of the federal government by the addition of the Bill of Rights, designed to protect individual rights from the power of the federal government. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights containing ten amendments were finally ratified by the last state in 1790.
The Enlightenment was the major cultural influence on eighteenth century America, and through it, the early colonial worldview dominated by Puritan theology shifted into a world view influenced by science and philosophy. There was an explosion of improved scientific technologies during the seventeenth century, and as a result, scientists were able to collect more precise data and challenge previously held ideas about how the world functioned. To illustrate the effect that scientific discoveries and theories had on the time period, consider Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation. If one had previously been told, as the seventeenth century Puritans had, that the workings of nature were actuated by God’s inscrutable will and were beyond humanity’s ability to understand, the discovery of a formula that could predict one of those workings of nature with accuracy every time (so long as the mass of the objects and the distance between them were known) would cause a seismic change in one’s perceptions. The existence of laws like Newton’s asserted that the universe was ordered on rational principles that man could understand using reason. As a result, the use of reason gained greater respect echoed in the era’s other name, the Age of Reason, and human ability was held in much higher regard.
In the eighteenth century, science and philosophy were not considered distinct fields of knowledge, and so it is not surprising that some philosophers too prioritized reason in examining the nature of humanity. English philosopher John Locke and his articulation of Empiricism show not only the supremacy of what is now called the scientific method but also a view of human nature that differed considerably from that of the Puritans. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), Locke asserts that “all ideas come from sensation or reflection.” In other words, all human knowledge is founded in sensory information—what we see, hear, smell, taste, or feel—and inferences that can be logically drawn from that information. It then follows that the nature of an infant at birth, assumed to have had no sensory experiences until that moment, must be like a tabula rasa or blank slate, untainted by original sin. While the Puritans believed that humanity is born bad, Locke asserted that humanity was born blank. The sensory experiences that followed and the inferences drawn from them as a result of a good or faulty education would dictate the kind of person one would become.
Though Empiricism held that human nature could be swayed either way, this period was nothing if not optimistic. Some Enlightenment and Federal era thinkers emphasized the goal of human perfectibility. Despite the concept’s name, they did not actually think humans could become perfect; however, they did believe that individuals and humanity in total could continually improve, if reason was applied to determine the best ways to be and the best ways to learn those ways. This period ushered in the establishment of many a library, athenaeum, and study group like Franklin’s Junto Club—all institutions available to the person wishing for self-improvement because people now believed that it was possible to become better through one’s own efforts. For these reasons, American literature of the eighteenth century is frequently intended to instruct, whether it be Benjamin Franklin’s “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection” or the frequent cautions about the dangers of vanity and frivolity for women in Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette.
Though reason had a new place of prominence in the eighteenth century, its inadequacies were also explored. Franklin lays out an eminently rational system of inculcating virtue, then goes on to admit that he never could learn some of those virtuous qualities. In an echo of his younger self rationalizing the break with his vegetarian principles when the smell of cooked fish becomes too tempting, Franklin slyly acknowledges that, sometimes, a “speckled” or only partially virtuous self is best. Foster too creates a tension between the textbook virtuous women who advise her heroine to abandon her flirtatious ways and settle for the life of a dutiful minister’s wife and that same heroine’s clear and persuasive understanding that this proposed life would be both unsuitable for her personality and deadly boring.
This new respect for human ability and potentiality lead the period to reimagine the relationship between the individual and the community. For Puritans, individualism was the cause of much evil, and so in John Robinson’s letter read to William Bradford’s group when they embarked for the New World, each traveler is instructed to “repress in himself and the whole body in each person, as so many rebels against the common good, all private respects of men’s selves, not sorting with the general conveniency.” For writers of the Enlightenment, the individual and the community were not antagonists but collaborators finding a balance that benefitted both. Remarking on individual freedom, Locke in his Second Treatise on Civil Government (1689) asserts
But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license . . .The state of nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.
In other words, the individual is free to do what he wants as long as it does not curtain the freedom of another; individual freedom must balance with group freedom. Locke’s statement also references two other influential concepts of the period—natural law and the golden mean—which were borrowed from classical Greek and Roman philosophy. The natural law concept argues that, to be just, laws should be founded in the observable operations of nature. Particularly in ethical arguments, this period also advocated for the desirability of finding the “golden mean” in any action and charting a middle course between two extremes of excess and paucity.
One might have supposed that the primacy of reason and an emphasis on the equality of all human beings would have vanquished prejudice against those who were not white males, but this period also illustrates that rationality is not invulnerable to bias. For some Americans such as Benjamin Franklin, it seemed obvious that one cannot both declare that all men are created equal and also support slavery. However, American slaveholders like Thomas Jefferson managed to rationalize the cognitive dissonance, arguing the paternalist position that Africans were not as fully developed as European descendants and needed to be controlled by the latter until they had moved further along on the continuum of civilization. Similar arguments were made about Native Americans, and the evidence of their advanced civilization was ignored or explained away. For example, it was a widely held belief that Native American burial mounds had been constructed by some earlier civilization that the Native Americans had overrun. Women, too, were excluded from the protections of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and were erased by the practice of coverture, which asserted that women’s legal rights were “covered” by those of her father or husband; women did not have a separate legal existence from their male relatives. Some white women were offered a limited ticket to participate in Enlightenment ideals through the concept of Republican Motherhood. This concept argued that women needed to be educated, to have some level of financial security, and to have knowledge of the political system so that they could raise sons who would be good American citizens. While Republican Motherhood increased access to education for a small group of women, their rights were still subsumed by the priorities of white men.
Though science and philosophy had increased influence on eighteenth century American culture, religion had not vanished from the scene. However, the hegemony of Calvinist theology was challenged by non-denominational groups as well as by a segment within the one of its major denomination. Some American intellectuals who identified with Enlightenment principles embraced deism, often called “natural religion” in reference to natural law. More a philosophy than an organized religion, deism had little in the way of dogma and no institutional structure. This belief system followed the principles of Empiricism by asserting that religious belief should derive from reason rather than tradition. Deists believed in God, rationally deducing the existence of a Creator from the orderliness of nature observed through their senses. As Thomas Paine, perhaps the most famous deist in America, asserts in “The Existence of God” (1797), “The Universe is the bible of a true Theophilanthropist. It is there that he reads of God. It is there that the proofs of his existence are to be sought and to be found.” However, deists did not see God as behind every tiny working of nature. Unlike the Puritans, who might describe any natural event as occurring because God was pleased or displeased with them, deists believed that nature operated itself along the orderly principles created by God and revealed by science. Finally, deists, like the period in general, were humanist, following a philosophy which prioritized human concerns and needs in its ethical beliefs. Whereas a Puritan would judge an action based on whether it was in accordance with or contrary to God’s will, a humanist deist would judge it according to its effect on people.
strike the preferred middle position between Calvinist beliefs and Enlightenment beliefs. Unitarianism grew out of the Congregationalist denomination—one of the major denominations of the Puritans who settled in the English colonies. Unlike deists, Unitarians valued the Bible as a sacred text; however, influenced by Empiricism, Unitarians argued that the Bible and religious traditions must be subjected to reason and accepted or rejected on that basis. One such tradition Unitarians felt did not pass rational muster was the belief in a three-person God, and their name is taken from this position. Also in accordance with Empirical beliefs, Unitarians rejected the Calvinist views of corrupt human nature and the inevitability of damnation for the majority and believed, in a religious version of human perfectibility, that all souls were capable of working toward salvation.
Colonial membership in Calvinist Protestant denominations experienced a resurgence in the eighteenth century especially from the 1730s to the 1750s when the Great Awakening, a movement of revitalized piety originating in Europe, arrived in America. While continuing to hold many tenets in contradiction to Enlightenment emphases, the Calvinism of the Great Awakening showed signs of the influence of that intellectual movement. Their views still held that man was born corrupt and unworthy of the salvation that God granted to some. However, the movement pushed back against the prioritization of rationality with the idea that one could prepare oneself to be open to God’s grace by a public and emotional testimony about one’s religious experience. For some of the foremost ministers of this movement, it was not enough to understand Biblical teachings intellectually; to truly understand God’s will and prepare oneself for the gift of grace, should one be saved, one needed to feel those teachings emotionally. The movement also directed its adherents to evangelize (publicly testify about one’s religious experience) to help others arrive at that deeper understanding and in that way, shows some influence of humanism.