The Beginnings of the Revolution

Chapter Three
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six


Benjamin Franklin fit very well into the developing age of Enlightenment which was blossoming in both Western Europe and the American colonies. The Enlightenment movement was not a religious movement. In fact, it was often considered a very subtle counter religious philosophy. The Enlightenment, as an intellectual event is harder to describe than political or military events.[1] Many thought the philosophical projection to be a delayed extension of the pre Reformation period of the European Renaissance. Furthermore, it was during the period between 1720 to 1770 that chemistry and physics were decidedly improved – and in medicine great progress was also made.[2]

The initiators of the Enlightenment era are often thought to be a French man named Francios Marie Arouet, familiar to most by his penname Voltaire (1694-1778) and an English philosopher named John Locke (1632-1704). However, the core seeds Enlightenment philosophical thought can easily be traced back to notable events and documents of the Italian Renaissance. Voltaire is mostly remembered for his 1734 publication of Philosophical Letters on the English Nation and as a central example of the philosopher as a politically engaged human liberalist.[3] Yet, today Voltaire is remembered in much ambiguity. 

Voltaire’s enlightenment predecessor John Locke wrote extensively about and supported the ideals representative government nearly a century before the formation of the United States. Locke’s Two Treatise of Government (1691) and other works by French and Scottish philosophers challenged previous concepts of a divinely sanctioned hierarchical political order originating in the power of fathers over families.[4] His writings were very popular among the colonists in North America, and they had a great deal to do with the coming of the war of the revolution in America.[5]   

The elementary forms of this new movement first became apparent in North America first in the educational institutions that had been founded in the colonies. London and Parisian teachers had brought the primary thoughts of this philosophy into their classrooms and educated the future educators of the colonists. The “New Philosophy” as some began to refer to it, slowly infiltrated political thought during the 1700s. Enlightenment rationalism affected politics as well as the various disciplines of science. Eventually the Enlightenment thought crept silently into some of the more open minded religious communities. Because the Enlightenment thought was based in reason and nature, it often appeared to be skeptical and/or critical in its content toward traditional Christian doctrine and practice.

The Enlightenment thinkers found that the somewhat religious posture of the growing movement of Deism was very compatible to their philosophies. There was a group of people, mainly well educated and more elite within the social structures that referred to themselves as Deists. Deism is not an official “religion”. It was a “heterogeneous movement where there is much emphasis on natural religion[6]”. It was a vague reflection of classical agnosticism, promoting the idea that God or a deity had created the world and left the forces of nature and the instilled moral conscience of mankind to govern and perpetuate it. To know this God or deity or for a personal relationship (including acts of worship) to be a possibility or a necessity in the realm of human existence was not to be considered as an objective goal. The popular philosophy of late 18th century deists was “God may only be thought of as an absentee landlord.”[7]

The American and especially the New England Colonists saw England as a source of information and example for societal development; cultural enhancement and political adherence. This included how they interacted ethically and behaviorally; how they patterned their environments of fashion style and architecture; and where there primary recognition of political authority and family heritage was connected to. This was obviously England and specifically King George who they readily acknowledged as their King. From their tea to their fashions, to their furnishings most of the founding fathers aspired to be as British as possible.[8]

Some of the founding fathers of the United States were none too ashamed to express their deistic ideals and philosophies openly. These men included Thomas Paine, who wrote an inspiring pamphlet promoting the revolution titled “Common Sense”. Paine authored yet another book which was called, “The Age of Reason”.  This publication was a very deistic interpretation of the role and place of religion (and specifically Christianity) in the new nation that was being formed. Benjamin Franklin, as previously mentioned, was a dynamic entrepreneur who used his abilities and his earnings to express his personal beliefs or lack thereof. 

There was also the well-known Thomas Jefferson who would eventually become the third president of the new nation. Mr. Jefferson was a highly respected renaissance intellectual living in the heartland of Virginia at his palatial estate we know as the Monticello. Yet, none of these men resisted or persecuted those who promoted Judeo-Christian moral values that were installed into the building of the new nation’s republican governmental structure. Even though Thomas Paine was a skeptic, but he justified declaring independence in Common Sense on Biblical grounds.[9] Paine was the most vocal counterpart of Christianity amongst the New England deists, neither he nor the others were ever aggressive toward any religious body practicing in North America.

Deism and the philosophies of Enlightenment thinking also operated in concert in a notable and adequate way with the growing institution of Free Masonry in North America. Lodges began forming throughout the new colonies prior to the Revolutionary War. The masonic orders incorporated rituals and participated in discussions that centered around the expression of various philosophical and religious values.   

Black slavery permeated the culture of the colonies, especially in the more southern ones. Very few of the white colonials discussed it from a moral perspective, and few lived without its presence on their farms and plantations. Imported slaves were regularly bought and sold, traded and often inherited as any other tangible property would be. The idea of racial equality was generally not even a consideration worth discussing at this point in our nation’s history.   

There was a unique irony in the industrial output of this very pious nation. It was found in the largest product produced on American soil. The alcoholic beverage called Rum was the main export from the American colonies, even though it was mainly produced in the New England colonies in high volume. During the pre-revolutionary war decades over two million gallons of rum were exported annually.

Colonial owned ships would transport rum from Boston to England. Then they would depart England as an empty vessel and make voyage to various ports in Africa. There they would acquire and transport black slaves from Africa to the West Indies. The African slaves were  then  sold  or  bartered  for  the  molasses. The molasses was then transported back to New England to be used for distilling rum.[10]

There were other exported products which included beans; notoriously known as the “Boston baked bean”. This product was used to feed slaves in transport and at auction. They also produced dried fish that they sold to the sea fairing merchants. Various grades of timber were sold readily to both England and their West Indies traders.[11]

[1] Guelzo, Allen C. The American Mind (Chantilly, Virginia  The Teaching Company, 2005) p.11

[2] Hyma, Albert World History–A Christian Interpretation (Grand Rapids,Michigan, Eerdmans

Publishing Company, 1952)  p.281

[3] Blackburn, Simon The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (New York, New York. Oxford

University Press,2006)   P.384

[4] Norton, Mary Beth A People & A Nation (New York, New York. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publishing, 2008) p.106

[5] Hyma, Albert World History–A Christian Interpretation (Grand Rapids,Michigan, Eerdmans

Publishing Company, 1952)  p.277

[6] Wright, Edmund  Dictionary of Word History (New York, Oxford University Press, 2006) p.151

[7] Blackburn, Simon Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy ((New York, Oxford University Press, 2006)


[8] Fletcher, Max M.  Founding Fathers – Rebels With a Cause (History Channel Documentary,2000)


[9] Allitt,Patrick N. American Religious History (Chantilly, VA, Teaching Company, 2001) p.31

[10] Cambou, Don  The American Revolution–The Conflict Ignites (History Channel

Documentary,1994)  17:40

[11] Cambou, Don  The American Revolution–The Conflict Ignites (History Channel

Documentary,1994)  18:10

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