John Locke: Natural Rights of all men

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/ Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

The natural contract between ruler and the public’s rights

The English Philosopher John Locke had a major impact on the people living during the Enlightenment. He especially believed that all men had natural rights, and that these were rights they were born with and should be entitled to. These included life, liberty ( or freedom), and property. This meant that no one person had special privileges over others. He also felt that the government had a special contract with its citizens in which it should protect these natural rights and said as much in the book that he published in 1690 entitled TWO TREATISES ON GOVERNMENT. In it he argued that if the ruler of a country wasn’t holding up their end of the contract it had with its people, the people had the right to change who ruled them. In this way, the Government’s sole purpose was for the good of its public.

Locke’s Influence in the Creation of the United States

Even as the enlightenment developed in Europe, exploration of the Americas was underway. Eventually, Locke’s ideas of natural right formed an important part of the creation of the United States. Do his ideas of life, liberty, and property sound familiar? When Thomas Jefferson wrote U.S. Declaration of Independence, he borrowed some of Locke’s ideas. This was probably because our founding fathers studied and understood the value of them.

Charles-louis Montesquieu: Separation of power

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/ Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Divide to limit control

Nearly 80 years after John Locke published his work on how the government’s role was to protect the natural rights of its people, another enlightenment thinker took his ideas a few steps further. French nobleman Charles-Louis Montesquieu agreed with Locke, but felt the best way to limit the government’s power was to divide it into branches. The separation of powers meant each part of the government had to work with the others. In this way, no one part could completely dominate the government or the people, as monarchs had up to this point in history. He expressed this division of government in his written work THE SPIRIT OF THE LAWS, published in 1748.

Separation of powers helped the united states protect the freedom of its people

Montesquieu’s concepts made their way over the Atlantic and into American history. The United States adopted the idea of separation of powers into the government in the form of our judicial (courts and judges – judge if laws or actions are constitutional), executive (president – enforces laws), and legislative (Senate and House of Representatives – lawmaking branch) branches. Each of these branches offer checks and balances to the other.

Voltaire: Forms of freedom

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/ Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Happiness in many forms

Religion and the power the church wielded upset many enlightenment thinkers. French philosopher Voltaire was especially adamant about openly scorning the church for telling people that only God could make them happy. He firmly believed that people could rely on themselves to find joy in life. He emphasized this in many of his writings, and soon came under fire for them. Many of his works were considered unholy texts by the church, and were banned. This led Voltaire to speak out against censorship, or the removal or destruction of information thought to be harmful or untrue. He’s well known for his quote: “I [may] disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Similar Freedoms in the Young United States

Voltaire’s persistence in the rights of men to create their own happiness, choose what religious beliefs they observed, speak how they wish, and to share any information they wanted had lasting effects. The first amendment of the United States Constitution reflects these by granting its citizens the freedom of religion, and the freedom of expression through speech, press, and assembly without governmental interference.

Age of Reason: New Gathering places

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/ Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Word of mouth bypasses censorship

The Enlightenment thinkers and their theories centered around the freedom of thought. As more and more philosophers and scientists offered their thoughts and discoveries, authorities of the church and European governments tried to control them through censorship, or the removal of information, and even the imprisonment or death of participants.

Despite these threats, enlightenment thinkers continued to spread their ideas orally, or by word of mouth. They would gather in  salons, or social groups in private homes to share the ideas. Salons were often hosted by women, and though most enlightenment thinkers didn’t consider women as equals, salons gave women the opportunity to influence public opinion and give input on  the ideals of the Enlightenment. Many of the ideas discussed during salons emphasized the use of logic and observation to find the truth. For this reason, the Enlightenment was also called The Age of Reason.

The Enlightenment was a secular movement, being completely removed from and often openly against religious  control and intolerance of anti-Christian believers.

Mary Wollstonecraft: Giving women a voice

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/ Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.


As the Enlightenment depended more and more on salons, or social gatherings to discuss Age of Reason ideas, their female hostesses were able to influence ideas and society in ways they couldn’t before. Women started to write and publish their thoughts in pamphlets and newspapers. The British writer Mary Wollstonecraft was bold enough to start suggesting the idea that women had rights too, and should be treated as equals with their male counterparts. Though her words weren’t heeded in her day, they laid a foundation for women’s rights later in history. She wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Comparing women’s rights for the modern student

Women’s equality may not seem weird to you, but back in Mary Wollstonecraft’s time, women weren’t thought to be as smart or able to do as many things as men. Some Enlightenment thinkers even went so far as to say that women should only be educated to a certain age, and then taught only the domestic duties of wives and mothers. While domestic duties are an important contribution, many women wanted to learn more and be more involved the changes they saw in their world.  In one of her most well-known written pieces, Mary Wollstonecraft argued for women’s right to be rational and free.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Destroying divine right of rulers

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/ Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Reiterating The Government’s true role

In the mid-16th century, European rulers emphasized their divine right, or God-ordained will, to govern their people in an effort to squash the ideas stirred up by Enlightenment thinkers. The French Jean-Jacques Rousseau focused his thoughts on the claims of divine right and criticized its basis. In his book The Social Contract, published in 1762, he affirmed that  a social contract exists between government and its citizens. The people give up certain freedoms for protection, and likewise the government exists for the purpose of enforcing law, but not controlling its citizens. 

Iceland ‘s citizens’ recent Breech of their social contract

Though the concepts of the Enlightenment are spoken about as though they only existed in the past, modern circumstances still utilize the theories. For example, in 2013, the citizens of Iceland protested and forced their entire government to resign. Then a group of private Icelandians rewrote their constitution to prevent a repetition of the banking fraud scandal uncovered about their current government.

Cesare Beccaria Don’t be Cruel!

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/ Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

The Accused Have rights!

In a time when punishment largely relied on the temperament and ultimate judgment of a monarch, Cesare Beccaria had the courage to disagree. As a renown criminologist he wrote a thesis, ON CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS (1764), which condemned torture and the death penalty. He argued that the accused have rights and should have a fair trial. After all, just because a person is accused of a crime, does not mean he/she is guilty. He also condemned the common “secret accusations” of the time and asserted that the punishment should fit the crime.  Hence, the “off with his head” mentality of emotionally charged monarchs was severely challenged in an open debate.

A Profound Influence

The American founding fathers were greatly influenced by the ideas of Beccaria.  The 8th amendment of the US Constitution confirms his beliefs by emphasizing that it is government’s job to protect citizens from cruel and unusual punishment. Furthermore, the US judicial system was created with the “innocent until proven guilty” notion in mind. The 6th amendment guarantees rights of the accused with a speedy, fair trial.

Thomas Hobbes People need Absolute Rule

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/ Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

People need to be protected from  themselves!

Thomas Hobbes wrote LEVATHIAN (1588–1679) about the foundation of legitimate governments. He was one of the first philosophers to believe in the Social Contract Theory, or that government is given authority by the consent (agreement) of the people. However, Hobbes differs from Locke and Rousseau because he thought that people should be ruled harshly to maintain order. Hobbes believed that people are selfish and greedy. In order to stop people from always acting on their own self interest he asserted that there should be an absolute ruler or person with ultimate control.

The Influence of Hobbes

As Hobbes wrote LEVIATHAN over fifty years before Locke wrote TWO TREATISES, and a hundred and fifty before Rousseau wrote about SOCIAL CONTRACT THEORY, he is considered the father of modern political thought. His ideas promoted further discussion on how government should be run to best serve the people. In the US, the founding fathers were influenced by Social Contract Theory, emphasizing that government is given its power by the people and it is government’s job to protect the rights of its citizens.

Naturalism: The Reinvention of Roman statues

Ancient Roman statues of the chest, shoulders, and heads of their gods and important people, such as teachers and rulers, are known as busts. During the Enlightenment, many ancient Roman art forms were rediscovered and took on new meaning. Busts were no exception. Enlightenment busts became more detailed, making the individual who was being cast in stone have more personality and displaying their natural flaws. This reiterated the ideas of naturalism and individualism that laced the Enlightenment period.