Unit 1: Enlightenment and The French Revolution

revolution background

Unit 1: Enlightenment French Revolution

The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century gave rise to what historians call “Enlightenment Thought” by setting a model for intellectual inquiry through the use of the scientific method. The Enlightenment, also known as the “Age of Reason,” blossomed in France in the eighteenth century. The French Enlightenment thinkers, or philosophes, emphasized human reason and logic and explored the ideas of “natural rights” such as equality and liberty. These ideas quickly spread throughout Europe, and the European Enlightenment thinkers began questioning long established political institutions such as absolutism and inherited power as found in monarchies.

In addition, they posed challenges to religious authority by stressing reason over a faith-based worldview, through a movement known as Deism. Deism likened God to a watchmaker, a creator who sets events in motion but does not play an active role. These ideas spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean and took root in the American colonies. As with the European Enlightenment, the new schools of thought in the American colonies were primarily limited to the well educated colonists of the upper class.

Many European philosophes, such as the Baron de Montesquieu, who first conceived of the idea of separation of powers within government, thought that change in society must come from above through an “enlightened” ruler. American colonists, however, thought that power should be in the hands of the people and that political change was both necessary and possible. With no native hereditary nobility or peasant class, as in European feudal society, the colonists could more easily envision change coming from below rather than above. The radical, liberal, ideas that were circulating prior to the American Revolution were encouraged and inflamed by a series of taxes imposed on the colonists to help ease the British out of the extreme debt that followed the Seven Years War with France. The American Revolution was a victory for the colonists who overthrew British colonial rule as well as an inspiration for the French Revolution that followed in France a little over a decade later. Later, South American colonies would begin a struggle for independence and liberation from the colonial rule of Spain and Portugal.

Enlightenment thought also informed our economic system. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, written in 1776, gave rise to economics as an academic discipline as well as provided the argument for laissez-faire economics, capitalism, free markets, and free trade, which would serve as a model for American economic policy and practice. Enlightenment thought is further reflected in our documents. The Constitution and Bill of Rights clearly reflect the Enlightenment ideas of inherent human rights, equality, and liberty. Sadly, the contentious institution of slavery, which was hotly debated during the Constitutional Convention, was in effect protected by the document that granted so many freedoms to others. Deep divisions over the question of slavery and states’ rights during the Constitutional Convention would come to define the issues central to the conflict leading to the Civil War in America nearly a century later.


Essential Questions

  • To what extent did the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment represent a rejection of traditional authority?
  • How did the Enlightenment lead to new assumptions regarding governance, law, and economics?
  • What was the impact of the Enlightenment on political thought?
  • What were the political, economic, religious, social, and intellectual causes of the French Revolution?
  • What were the political outcomes of the first phase of the French Revolution?
  • Why did the Terror occur and what were its consequences?
  • Were the ideals of the French Revolution lost during Napoleon’s reign?

Key Themes

  • Natural Rights
  • Rationality
  • Freedom of thought and innovation
  • Progression of human society
  • Revolution
  • Power and Authority



Class Notes for Unit 1

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