Essay: Enlightenment on American Culture and Political Life

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¶ … Enlightenment on American Culture and Political Life

The impact that the Enlightenment had on American culture is significant. In fact the American society that "evolved and is dominant today -- including the democratic ideals, capitalism and the scientific method -- all "derive from the Enlightenment ideals formulated in England" (Jandt, 2007, p. 184). The emphasis that Americans have on individual liberties and the dominant language in America and the structure of law were the result of the Enlightenment, Jandt explained (184). The author asserts that values related to democracy -- including separation of powers (executive, legislative and judicial) -- derived from the French philosopher Montesquieu, prominent in the French Enlightenment.

Professor Robert Morse Crunden -- with the University of Texas -- explained that because of the Enlightenment's impact on America, "Educated men revolted against the irrationality and violence of post-Reformation Europe" (Crunden, 1996, p. 31). Those educated men -- plus "local clergy, academics, businessmen and professional men" were enlightened, creating new ideas and producing profoundly important documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (Crunden, 31).

Crunden points out that the Enlightenment in Europe had a ripple affect that reached American in powerful ways -- without the controversies that the Enlightenment caused in Europe -- and affected American values in significant ways. Specifically, the right to vote, the freedom to worship, the right to trial by peers, and "intellectual freedom" were alive and well in America because America was "…new and free" from the "domination of irrational monarchs" (Crunden, 32).

Professor Milan Zafirovski of the University of North Texas believes that the Enlightenment is "…the crucial, decisive cultural factor in contemporary Western society" (Zafirovski, 2010, p. 67). Zafirovski offered that assertion because "…in association with…economic and political revolutions implementing or expressing its ideas, it ushered in liberal-democratic modernity as its child" (67).

TWO: Puritan families -- roles, beliefs, values, and the teaching of children

The Puritan clergy preached Calvinist beliefs in salvation but they allowed individuals to "…scrutinize their own souls for signs of God's grace" (Grigg, et al., 2008, p. 205). As to the roles of men and women, Grigg explains that in theological terms, Puritan "…male and female souls were equal before God." However in society, there were different stations on earth for the genders: men were placed above women, Grigg continues (205).

But there were conflicts between the genders because the Puritans insisted that every individual (male and female) must "…read the scriptures for him-or herself and contemplate its meaning for his or her life" (Grigg, 205). This led some to believe and conclude that they should "act apart from their prescribed gender roles" (Grigg, 205). Women were forbidden from either espousing their faith publicly or teaching religion. Puritan leader Cotton Mather put forth the rule that a young Puritan bride should "…look to her husband for advice and instruction"; moreover, she should call him "lord" and should "…avoid offending him at any cost" (Grigg, 77). These roles became more flexible when both husband and wife were challenged by weather, war, or injuries; getting the immediate tasks done that involved survival and sustainability in a physical sense required both genders to pitch in without regard to social status.

English professor Leland Ryken writes that as to the raising of children, the husband was the "hierarchy of authority" but that didn't mean the wife was his servant; in fact the husband was to be obeyed "…only if he can support his viewpoint from the Bible" (Ryken, 2010). Next to the husband was the wife in terms of "authority over children and household servants," Ryken explains. Children belonged to God, but the parents were "entrusted" too offer stewardship, Ryken continues (without page numbers in his book). The most important thing parents could teach their children was related to spiritual and moral matters, Ryken. Cotton Mather (quoted by Ryken) said that parents "should take pains that they may know God" and the "knowledge of the Christian religion."

Also, Puritans insisted that children needed know how to work, in order that they would become "productive members of society in their adult years," Ryken reports. In fact New England laws required "every father" to make sure his children were taught "…in some lawful calling, labor or employment, either in husbandry, or some other trade profitable for themselves and the commonwealth" (Ryken). Moreover, besides preventing Satan from bringing his "assaults upon children in their infancy," parents were obliged to "…teach more through example than by their words… be sure to set good example before your children…" (Ryken).

THREE: Lifestyles of American Colonists (less British, more American), etc.

The rejection of English aristocracy and autocracy is well-known, and this was the spark that lit the fires of Revolution; indeed, the sense of separation colonists experienced (after 1776) was "…schizophrenic, characterized on the one hand by violent rejection of English tyranny…and on the other by acute nostalgia for their English culture" (Fisher, 2001, p. 58). One aspect of English culture that was not rejected was the language. Meanwhile professor emeritus from Northern Virginia Community College, Henry Sage, explains that the colonists did not question the fact that they represented the British Empire, that they were subjects of the Crown, "until shortly before the American Revolution" (Sage, 2010, p. 4). Things changed between the colonists and the Crown when the colonists became more prosperous, Sage explains. The "…spread of information through books, pamphlets and newspapers…infused the Americans with a political sense of that to which they were entitled as British citizens." British theories were examined critically by the colonists and they became aware they were "being exploited"; hence, they began to feel like Americans rather than as British subjects.

Moreover, as the number of Germans, Scotch-Irish and Africans arrived in the colonies, the population of the colonies became "…less English and more cosmopolitan" and hence, some colonists began to "…envision themselves as part of a distinct community of Americans" (Bilhartz, et al., 2007, p. 7). In the middle decades of the 18th century the Great Awakening (a religious revival) "…rippled throughout the thirteen English colonies" and suddenly, as newspapers covered the revival meetings, colonists in New England read about colonists in Georgia; there was a sense that they "…were no longer simply English. They were becoming Americans (Bilhartz, 8).

FOUR: Cultural changes from England to American tastes in the 17th & 18th centuries

As far as architecture, during the 17th and most the 18th century, the style was Georgian (British style, box buildings, "highly decorated cornices" and heavily symmetrical). But after the Revolution the styles changed into "Federal Style" (less symmetrical, large windows, and brightly colored interior furnishings") (Your Dictionary). Art changed from mostly portraitures and battle scenes to "landscapes and personal scenes…mountains, farms, and oceans, and the people who lived throughout the fledgling nation" (Your Dictionary).

Linda Baumgarten writes that before the Revolution colonists "wanted clothes of quality and of the newest fashion. They tried to exert control over what they received by giving specific instructions" to the seamstresses in England (even sending along "textile swatches for color or pattern); but the "judgment of the British factor was the final arbiter of taste" (Baumgarten, 2002, p. 94). Looking for new clothing styles from England continued "…after the Revolutionary War," Baumgarten explains (97). Baumgarten recalls that in the 1760s and 1770s, as Americans began moving towards divorcing relations with England, the British slapped taxes on a number of British goods, which the colonists knew was unfair. Hence various associations sprung up to protest against the taxes; the Williamsburg Association of 1770 put luxury items and silk, linen, woolens and Irish hose on a list of off-limits to order or buy from England. As a result of this ban in imports, "…many Americans rose to the challenge of producing and wear their own textiles as a means of protest" (Baumgarten, 95).

Foods the colonists preferred after the Revolution included: a) average farm families ate grain and pork and dried beans; b) wealthier families consumed tropical fruits, milk, fresh vegetables and oysters and lobsters; c) poorer families ate blood pudding (a mixture of port or beef blood mixed with chopped pork stuffed into casings; pigs were easy to raise and cheap); and d) shellfish were sold raw all over the colonies (in oyster houses and by street peddlers) (Smith, 2007, p. 254).

As to post-Revolution race and ethnicity issues, Reginald Horsman explains that in the late 18th century and early 19th century a struggle ensued between the "theoretical view of mankind and race provided by Enlightenment thought" and a more "practical view stimulated by over contacts between white Americans and blacks or Indians" (Horsmen, 1981, p. 98). Thomas Jefferson "and his circle" believed (based on the Enlightenment) that "all mankind was of one species" and that mankind "in general" was perfectly capable of "indefinite improvement" (Horsman, 98). The first truly major American work on the difference between races was published in 1787 by Stanhope Smith -- called "An Essay on the Causes of the Variety… [END OF PREVIEW]

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