Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government (2023)

Standard 1.3: Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government

Explain the influence of Enlightenment thinkers on the American Revolution and the framework of American government. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T1.3]

FOCUS QUESTION: How did the Enlightenment Contribute to the Growth of Democratic Principles of Government?

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The Enlightenment (or Age of Reason) is the term used to define the outpouring of philosophical, scientific, and political knowledge in Europe at the beginning of the 18th century. European civilization had already experienced the Renaissance (1300-1600) and the Scientific Revolution (1550-1700). The Enlightenment further transformed intellectual and political life based on the application of science to dramatically alter traditional beliefs and practices.

Explore our resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki page to learn more about the Main Ideas of Enlightenment Thinkers.

Enlightenment thinkers believed that rational reasoning could apply to all forms of human activity. Their writing can be "broadly understood to stand for the claim that all individuals have the right to share their own ends for themselves rather than let others do it for them" (Pagden, 2013, p. x). Politically, they asked what was the proper relationship of the citizen to the monarch or the state. They held that society existed as a contract between individuals and some larger political entity. They advanced the idea of freedom and equality before the law. Enlightenment ideas about how governments should be organized and function influenced both the American and French Revolutions.

The Enlightenment is commonly associated with men whose writing and thinking combined philosophy, politics, economics and science, notably John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Isaac Newton and Thomas Jefferson. Women too, though often downplayed or ignored in the textbooks and curriculum frameworks, contributed change-producing ideas and actions, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges, Mary Astell, Caroline Herschel, Emile du Chatelet, and Maria Sybilla Merian.

Explore our resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki page to learn more about The Enlightenment, Principles of Democratic Government and Women's Political Empowerment.

How did the Enlightenment's optimistic faith in the discovery and application of natural law to human life inspire revolution and reform throughout the world? As the National Center for History in Schools (1992) noted: "The first great upheavals to be marked - though surely not 'caused' - by Enlightenment thought were the American and French revolutions, and they opened the modern era of world history" (p. 262).

The modules in this topic explore the catalysts for revolutionary change through the writings and actions of men and women philosophers, scientists, and change-makers.

(Video) Enlightenment Thinkers

    1. INVESTIGATE: Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau and Their Influence on Government

    The American Revolution and the subsequent framework of American government were heavily influenced by John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, and Jean Jacques Rousseau - three Enlightenment philosophers who “developed theories of government in which some or even all the people would govern” (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2019, para. 10). Each rejected in one way or another the views of Thomas Hobbes who believed government must be led by an all-powerful king.

    The Constitutional Rights Foundation has characterized Locke as a “reluctant” democrat because he favored a representative government, Montesquieu a “balanced” democrat who favored a combination of a king checked by a legislative body, and Rousseau an “extreme” democrat because he believed everyone should vote. Each influenced the founding and development of United States government.

    You can learn more about these philosophers and their philosophies at our wiki pages: Political, Economic and Intellectual Influences on the American Revolution and Main Ideas of Men and Women Enlightenment Thinkers.

    John Locke

    John Locke (1632-1704) was a political theorist who is remembered as the father of modern republican government. He believed a state could only be legitimate if it received the consent of the governed through a social contract. In Locke’s view, social contract theory protected the natural rights of life, liberty, and property. If this did not happen, he argued, the people had a right to rebel. His ideas about the consent of the governed and the right to rebellion would later influence the supporters of the American Revolution and the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

    Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government (2)

    Locke supported England's constitutional monarchy and promoted democratic governments with a system of checks and balances. Thomas Jefferson's famous quote from the Declaration of Independence was based on Lockean philosophy: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

    In Locke’s view, all men—literally men and not women—had the political rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of private property. He also believed that human beings, because of divine will are by nature inherently good and can make their own reasonable decisions if left alone by the government.

    John Locke wrote Two Treatises on Civil Government (1690). Watch this Videosummarizing and highlighting his main ideas.

    (Video) The Enlightenment: Crash Course European History #18

    Baron de Montesquieu

    Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) is perhaps best known for his belief in the separation of governmental powers. Inspired by England's Glorious Revolution and Constitutional Monarchy, Montesquieu believed that in an ideal state there are two types of governmental authority:

    1. the sovereign (King/President) and
    2. the administrative powers (bureaucracy).

    In Montesquieu’s view, there are also three administrative powers within a state, each providing a check and balance on the others:

    1. the legislature (parliament/congress),
    2. the executive (king/head of state),
    3. the judiciary (court system).

    The purpose behind this system of checks and balances was to prevent a single individual or group of people from having full control of the state. Ironically, while Montesquieu was inspired by Britain's Constitutional monarchy, England during the time period did not practice separation of governmental powers. Indeed, until the late 1800s, the British Monarchy effectively ruled the nation with the help of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. To this day, England still does not have an official written constitution.

    The idea of a constitutional government with three separate branches of the state would later become essential in the writing of the American constitution. To get any official new legislation passed into law, the U.S. President must always work together with Congress. This is a legacy of Montesquieu's political philosophy in practice today.

    Jean Jacques Rousseau

    Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that human beings are basically good by nature, but historical events have corrupted them and the present state of civil society. Although "he did not go to school for a single day and was essentially self-taught, his writings included a political theory that deeply influenced the American Founding Fathers and the French Revolutionaries. . ." (Damrosch, 2005, p. 1).

    Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government (3)

    In Rousseau's ideal world, people would live in small communal farming communities and make decisions democratically. His 1762 work, The Social Contract, begins with the famous line, “Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains” (para. 2).

    Rousseau believed that people could regain their lost freedom by creating a society where citizens choose to obey laws they themselves created, giving up some personal self gains in exchange for a wider common good. He advocated for direct democracy where everyone’s votes determine what happens politically.

    To read more, explore an interactive transcript for the "Introduction to Rousseau: The Social Contract" video using VidReader, a tool that creates interactive transcripts for YouTube videos.

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Write a Social Contract for Your Classroom
      • A social contract is an agreement made between a government and its people, or in this case, between students and a teacher.
      • Through class discussion and individual writing, develop a social contract for your classroom and publish it on Google Classroom or some other learning management system.
      • Questions to consider include:
        • Based on your experiences so far, what is the role of your civics teacher?
        • In your opinion, do you think the rules in your class are fair or unfair? Why do you say this?
        • In your opinion, do you think the activities the teacher assigns actually helps you learn? Why do you say this?
        • On a scale of 1-5, how much would you say your understanding of civics has increased (1 being not at all, 5 being you know much more now than you did before the class)?
        • What is AT LEAST one way in which the teacher could make your civics education experience more effective for you as a learner (rules, information, assignment types, organization, structure, etc.)?
    (Video) POLITICAL THEORY - John Locke

    Online Resources about Enlightenment Philosophers

    2.UNCOVER: Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges, and the Rights of Women

    Mary Wollstonecraft

    Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 - 1797) was a writer and advocate for women’s rights. She believed that women should be given greater education because of their importance in raising children and being not just wives but partners or “companions” with their husbands. Her personal life, that included an illegitimate child, love affairs, and suicide attempts, was considered scandalous at the time. She died at age 38. Her daughter was Mary Shelley, author of the novel, Frankenstein.

    Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government (4)

    Mary Wollstonecraft believed that women should have the same rights as men (including life and liberty). In A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790), she opposed monarchy and aristocracy. In 1792, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Womanin which she asked:

    "How many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practised as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility, that consumes the beauty to which it at first gave lustre" (p. 157).

    Wollstonecraft also urged establishment of a national education system with mixed gender schools; such education would give women the right to earn their own living (British Library Book/Manuscript Annotation).

    Olympe de Gouges

    Olympe de Gouges (1748 - 1793) was a French writer and activist for women’s rights during the French Revolution. She was the author of The Declaration of the Rights of Women and Female Citizen (1791), a powerful call for gender equality and political change. She was subsequently beheaded during the Reign of Terror, the only woman executed for her political writing during that time. She wrote, “A woman has the right to be guillotined; she should also have the right to debate” (quoted in “The Writer’s Almanac,” November 3, 2019).

    Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government (5)

    Olympe de Gouges’ activism contrasted dramatically with the traditional gender roles women were expected to play in European society. Although women did not have many rights and privileges, de Gouges used ideas from the Enlightenment to advocate for greater rights for women and enslaved Black people.

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Construct Women Change-Maker Trading Cards

    Online Resources for Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe De Gouges and Rights of Women

    3.ENGAGE:How Can Schools Support the Political Ambitions of Young Girls?

    A dramatic and continuing gender gap continues to exist between women and men in STEM careers. Women make up less than a third of the workers in biological science, chemistry, computers, engineering, and architecture (The STEM Gap: Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

    Less well-known is a political gender gap that exists between women and men incareers in government, politics, and law.Women hold only a small percentage of local, state, and national political offices throughout the country. In legal fields, where women graduate from law school at about the same rate as men, women make considerably less money and far fewer advance to become judges.

    (Video) Enlightenment Ideas & American Democracy

    Although both girls and boys show interest in politics in the younger grades, fewer young women pursue careers in government or politics. Researching this issue, a group of political scientists found that longstanding gender stereotypes and lack of role models are among the reasons why young girls do not pursue these opportunities. As they proceed through school, many girls follow societal expectations that direct them toward jobs and careers that match gender stereotypes for women. Just as in math and science fields, young girls develop lower interest and ambition in politics than boys("This One's for the Boys: How Gendered Socialization Limits Girls' Political Ambition and Interest," American Political Science Review, May 2022).

    What can your school or community do to inspire the political career ambitions of young girls?

    Perhaps learning the histories of women change-makers would be a first step? Katherine Johnson is one important example.

    Katherine Johnson was a mathematician and physicist at NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) whose math and science work were essential to the success of early United States space exploration, including the 1962 flight when John Glenn became the first American man to orbit the earth. Her work in STEM was the basis for the book Hidden Figures(Shetterly, 2016) and 2017 movie.

    Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government (6)

    Katherine Johnson was a pioneer in civil rights as well. She was one of the first Black students to integrate into graduate schools in West Virginia; the third African American to earn a doctoral degree in mathematics; and a Presidential Medal of Honor recipient.

    Beyond learning about historical role models that counter longstanding gender stereotypes:

    • What specific educational opportunities would you create for your school or local community organizations to promote the political ambitions of young girls?
    • What career-building courses and experiences would you recommend for students in elementary, middle, and high schools?
    • What specific action steps do you plan to take to understand options and opportunities for women in fields of politics, government, and law?

    Media Literacy Connections: 21st Century Women STEM Innovators

    Women, whose work in philosophy, science, and politics is often neglected or marginalized in history textbooks and curriculum framework, made change-producing discoveries and advances during the Enlightenment and in every era since. However, still in today's digital age, the most well-known figures are men: Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg.

    Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government (7)

    In the following activities, you will explore the accomplishments of 21st century women innovators in the media and think about how to encourage more girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM):

    (Video) Enlightenment Ideas to US Government

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • State Your View
      • Have the accomplishments of women such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Katherine Johnson been intentionally excluded or just omitted from textbooks and curriculum frameworks?
      • Why is it important to recognize the contributions of women in math, science, and politics?
    • Create a Digital Poster
      • Design an interactive timeline (e.g., Sutori, Timeline JS, Canva) about a woman from the 17th and 18th centuries who made prominent discoveries in math and science fields, but who has been largely ignored for their contributions. Make sure to discuss how their work has impacted present-day society.
        • resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki online biography pages for each woman:
    • Conduct a 20th Century Trailblazers/Change-Makers Tournament
      • A Women Trailblazers/Change-Makers Tournament is a way to uncover the hidden histories and untold stories of women who made significant contributions in math, science, or politics, but who have been largely ignored in textbooks and curriculum frameworks.
      • Here is aWomen Trailblazers March Madness Game with additional women change-makers to feature in a March Madness Tournament.
      • Suggested 20th Century women trailblazers and change-makers include:
    • Propose Wikipedia Edits
      • ViewYou Can Help Fix Wikipedia's Gender Imbalance - Here's How To Do It,TED.com (March 9, 2020) about one woman's work fixing Wikipedia's lack of information about women scientist,inventors, change-makers.
      • Create a poster or infographic using online resources such as Canva (or draw it by hand) that briefly, succinctlyexplains to students HOW to create or improve awiki page for an unknown woman scientist, inventor, lawyer, judge, politician, or change-maker.
    • Interactive Viewing:Watch and Respondto Microsoft's #MakeWhatsNext Ad
      • Begin viewing and stop at 0:09 where you see the first question about inventors. Write as many responses as you can in 60 seconds.
      • Resume viewing and stop at 0:24 when you see the second question about women inventors. Write as many responses responses as you can in 60 second.
      • What surprised you about the lists? Did you have difficulty listing women inventors? Why is this often the case for not only students, but adults as well?

    Online Resources for Women Trailblazers

    Conclusion for Standard 3

    This standard’s Investigate examined the work of John Locke, including his “Two Treatises of Government” (1690) and social contract theory, as well as Montesquieu’s formulation of checks and balances to prevent a single individual or group of people from having full control of the state.Uncover focused on the French feminist Olympe De Gouges who in 1791 published the Declaration of the Rights of Women and Female Citizen, a stirring call for the equality of women during the French Revolution.Engage asked how focusing on women in history and current society were important trailblazers, innovators, and change-makers can expand opportunities for young girls to pursue careers in politics, government and the law.


    What points of view did Enlightenment thinkers have about government answers? ›

    an English Enlightenment Thinker who wrote Two Treatises of Government and believed that the role of government is to protect people's natural rights (life, liberty, and property), and that government can only get its right to rule from the consent of the governed.

    What did Enlightenment thinkers believe about democracy? ›

    They held that society existed as a contract between individuals and some larger political entity. They advanced the idea of freedom and equality before the law. Enlightenment ideas about how governments should be organized and function influenced both the American and French Revolutions.

    How did the Enlightenment impact the development of democratic governments? ›

    The Enlightenment brought political modernization to the west, in terms of focusing on democratic values and institutions and the creation of modern, liberal democracies. Enlightenment thinkers sought to curtail the political power of organized religion, and thereby prevent another age of intolerant religious war.

    What did the Enlightenment thinkers believed was the role of government? ›


    What did Enlightenment thinkers say about government? ›

    These thinkers valued reason, science, religious tolerance, and what they called “natural rights”—life, liberty, and property. Enlightenment philosophers John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all developed theories of government in which some or even all the people would govern.

    Which Enlightenment thinker has had the biggest impact on our government? ›

    The single most important influence that shaped the founding of the United States comes from John Locke, a 17th century Englishman who redefined the nature of government.

    Did the Enlightenment lead to democracy? ›

    The Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that spread from Europe to America in the 1700s, helped inspire democratic revolutions in Europe, the United States, and Latin America.

    What were the 3 major ideas that Enlightenment thinkers believe in? ›

    So what was it? The Enlightenment, sometimes called the 'Age of Enlightenment', was a late 17th- and 18th-century intellectual movement emphasizing reason, individualism, and skepticism.

    What Enlightenment thinker thought the best system of government was a direct democracy? ›

    Rousseau argued that the general will of the people could not be decided by elected representatives. He believed in a direct democracy in which everyone voted to express the general will and to make the laws of the land.

    What type of government did most Enlightenment thinkers want? ›

    Notably, few Enlightenment thinkers called for democracy as people understand the term today. Many intellectuals such as Voltaire believed that monarchy was the best way to advance social, political, and economic goals. However, the idea that citizens could hold their leaders accountable was revolutionary.

    What was the main idea of the Enlightenment thinkers? ›

    Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and celebration of reason, the power by which humans understand the universe and improve their own condition. The goals of rational humanity were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness. A brief treatment of the Enlightenment follows.

    What Enlightenment ideas were involved in government? ›

    Enlightenment ideas also inspired independence movements, as colonies sought to create their own country and remove their European colonizers. Governments also began to adopt ideas like natural rights, popular sovereignty, the election of government officials, and the protection of civil liberties.

    How did the Enlightenment change government and society? ›

    The Enlightenment led many people to think about their government and to consider ways in which it should be reformed. The relationship between the people and the state began to be envisioned as a social contract rather than one in which an authoritarian leader ruled his subjects without question.

    How did Enlightenment thinkers approach the study of government? ›

    Enlightenment thinkers criticized accepted ideas about government. Some questioned the medieval belief in the divine right of kings [the idea that God chose a country's king, and that the king got his authority from God.] Many Enlightenment thinkers stressed individual rights that governments must respect.

    What Enlightenment ideas did Americans hold about government? ›

    Their ideals include having an absolute monarch as a government (T.H), the separation of powers (Mont.), the government should not interfere with a free market economy (A.S), the freedom of speech (Volt.), the government could be overruled (J.L), and the government should rule according to the will of the people.

    Which Enlightenment thinkers were in favor of checks and balances in government? ›

    Montesquieu was a French Enlightenment-Era philosopher whose writings greatly influenced the Founding Fathers. Most notably he argued determinedly for a separation of powers in any democratic government to ensure that no one part of the government could become despotic.

    Which Enlightenment thinker influenced the 3 branches of government? ›

    Montesquieu called the idea of dividing government power into three branches the “separation of powers.” He thought it most important to create separate branches of government with equal but different powers.

    What points of view did Enlightenment thinkers have about government quizlet? ›

    Locke thought government should protect people's rights, while Hobbes believed government should be all-powerful in order to control human evil. Locke thought human nature was neither good nor bad; Hobbes thought humans were naturally selfish and warlike.

    What were the 3 key points of the Enlightenment? ›

    The Enlightenment was a period in European history that took place during the 18th century. During this era, philosophers stressed the values of skepticism, reason, and individualism, as well as liberty and secularism.

    What was the main point of Enlightenment thinkers? ›

    Enlightenment thinkers in Britain, in France and throughout Europe questioned traditional authority and embraced the notion that humanity could be improved through rational change. The Enlightenment produced numerous books, essays, inventions, scientific discoveries, laws, wars and revolutions.

    What were the main points of the Enlightenment? ›

    The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge obtained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as natural law, liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.


    1. Essential Enlightenment: What was the Enlightenment?
    (The Fraser Institute)
    2. House State Government Committee- February 15, 2023- House Hearing Room
    (Tennessee House of Representatives)
    3. Locke & Montesquieu: The Philosophers Behind the Founders
    (The Federalist Society)
    4. The Enlightenment Thinkers
    (Caitlin Wright)
    5. Socialism, Briefly Explained
    (Red Pen)
    6. Age of Enlightenment: The Age of Reason Explained
    (Captivating History)
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