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PostPosted: 08 Jul 2008, 21:33 
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The Influence of the Enlightenment on America: Reflections on this past July 4th
by Paul Kurtz


July 4th marks the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, authored by Thomas Jefferson. So many firework displays and parades have been held and speeches delivered to celebrate that great event in American history that one wonders what more can be said? Perhaps an overlooked fact, surely one that has not been sufficiently appreciated, is the influence of the French and European Enlightenment on the leaders of the American Revolution and of the new nation that was about to be born. Many or most of the outstanding men at that time—Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, Washington—were profoundly influenced by the ideas and values of the Enlightenment, and they drew upon the writings of John Locke, the French philosophs, and other European authors. Indeed Jefferson and Franklin spent time in France as representatives of the American colonies. Many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were men of learning who seriously studied the great books of that period and learned from them. Many cherished the personal libraries that they collected. Jefferson donated his to the University of Virginia, which he later established. Incidentally, he died on July 4th, 1826—exactly fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Our Founding Fathers were incredible giants, and they contributed enormously to our political future, but they were also all too human. Jefferson had an intimate relationship with his slave, Sarah Hemingway, and indeed sired several children with her. He even took her to Paris with him. Benjamin Franklin was lionized by the French; yet he is reputed to have pursued French women with a lusty passion. Alexander Hamilton, according to his biographers, also led a robust personal life....The right of privacy for men and women in public life perhaps had more meaning in those days than today. In any case, it is the contributions of secular humanism to American democracy that I wish to highlight.

The first point I wish to make is that the Declaration of Independence focuses on the basic humanistic values of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It eloquently defends individual freedom and the achievement of the good life. Intrinsic to the Declaration is the assertion that “all men are created equal”: the affirmation of Human Rights, which Tom Paine and Jefferson later so forthrightly enunciated.

The second point to be made is that America was founded as a secular Republic. The Constitution which was drafted later by Madison begins with the memorable words, “We the people of the United States?.” It does not say that there is a divine right of monarchs or rulers. Sovereignty is derived from the people, not from God. The Bill of Rights, later enacted, begins with the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof. This is the foundation of the separation of church and state, the first nation to clearly affirm that principle. Jefferson authored the Statute of Virginia for Religious Liberty, which was adopted by the House of Burgess in Virginia (1779, 1786). James Madison, too, was a heroic defender of religious liberty—he believed a person should have the right to believe or not believe in whatever creed he chooses.
Liberty of thought and conscience is thus enshrined in the great American experiment. The Constitution clearly states that there shall be no religious qualification for public office. Would that our candidates for office today pay heed to that provision!

Third, the founders of the American Republic were naturalists; that is, they looked to the sciences to understand nature. Although many were deists, they were critical of superstition. Reason, they thought, was the best guide in life. Influenced by Voltaire, they believed deeply in free thought and free inquiry.
Fourth, they accepted a key ideal of the Enlightenment, the conviction that human progress is possible and there are vital roles that reason, science, and education can contribute in improving the human condition. These are predicated on the values of secularism and humanism, a belief in the capacity of human beings to govern themselves if afforded the liberty and the opportunity to do so, and some degree of optimism that they will succeed.

Fifth, implicit in the American political system are the Civic Virtues of Democracy. These emphasize the right to dissent, a free press, tolerance of conflicting points of view, the use of rational methods to persuade other men and women, and the willingness to negotiate differences peacefully. Our system of checks and balances always seeks to guard against excessive power in one branch of government. No one should be considered above the law.

Thus we celebrate July 4th and the signing of the Declaration of Independence of 1776. But the true meaning of that Declaration is best discovered by what followed from it. The adoption of the Constitution, the bloody Civil War which extended equal rights to African Americans, the Suffragist movement which enabled women to fully participate in society, the emancipation of native Americans from mistreatment by the movement of settlers westward, and other vital reforms. The progressive ideals of the early days of America need to be remembered: the principles of independence, freedom, equality, and opportunity; and the reliance on science, reason, education, and democracy to improve life are all part of the American Dream. They were introduced in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. The vast energies that this intellectual and ethical movement inspired still need to be realized. July 4th is a good day to reaffirm that conviction.

Paul Kurtz is the Founder and Chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism

_________________
Chloride and Sodium: Two terribly dangerous substances that taste great together!


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PostPosted: 21 Mar 2018, 22:20 
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