Enlightenment Thinkers

Individuals Influence on Self-Government in the 13 Colonies

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Tomas Hooker

On a wall near the cathedral in Chelmsford, Essex is a plaque, which states, "Thomas Hooker, 1586-1647, Founder of the State of Connecticut, Father of American Democracy."

His reputation as a gifted preacher spread through England causing the folks of Chelmsford to invite him to be their "lecturer." As lecturer he was to preach to the community on market days and assist in the preaching on Sundays. Chelmsford had a reputation as a place full of alehouses and drunkenness, but under the influence of Hooker's godly preaching the town was changed for the better. He was eventually run out of England by the head of the English church because of his teachings. The church felt like Thomas was not following or teaching their beliefs.

Thomas Hooker arrived in Massachusetts in 1633. For a time Thomas and his family settled there while he served as the pastor of the 8th church in that colony. The civil situation was not completely harmonious between the leaders. John Cotton, another leader, wanted to set up a community in which only men who were members of the church and held property could vote. Thomas Hooker, like Cotton, wanted to build a godly community, but he believed all the men should have a voice and a vote.

This difference was settled when Thomas Hooker led about one hundred people away to begin a new settlement, which is now called Hartford, Connecticut. Thomas Hooker believed in democratic ideas such as elections conducted by the people, that people have the power to limit the power of the government, and that the government operates with the consent of the governed. This means the government only operates with the permission of the people by the choices they make in voting for representatives. This colony put Hooker's principles into practice when it adopted the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut sometimes called the first written constitution which included protection of individual rights.
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William Penn

William Penn was born in London, England, on October 14, 1644. The son of an admiral and landowner, he was educated in theology and the law. In his twenties he converted to the Quaker religion and was jailed several times for his resistance to the Church of England. In 1681, he received a royal charter to form a new colony in America, to be named Pennsylvania; he envisioned this territory as a peaceful refuge for members of all religious beliefs.


Following his conversion to the Society of Friends, Penn began to fight for greater freedom for this marginalized and frequently persecuted religious group.

In the late 1660s, Penn wrote several works about his new religious beliefs, beginning with The Sandy Foundation Shaken (1668), which questioned several basic Protestant doctrines. He was jailed for blasphemy in the Tower of London as a result of this publication. While imprisoned, he wrote No Cross, No Crown, another avowal of his faith. He was released in 1669, and he continued to promote the Quaker teachings of self-denial and social reform. Penn was arrested on further occasions, on charges of illegal preaching and inciting a riot. He also made missionary trips throughout England, and to Holland and Germany.

By the 1670s, Penn had become a figure of importance in the Quaker community. In 1675, he was asked to resolve a land dispute between Quaker property owners in the American colony of West New Jersey. After settling the dispute, using his legal knowledge and leadership skills, he was chosen to organize the founding of a Quaker colony in America.

Penn petitioned King Charles II for additional land to the west of the Delaware River, and he received a charter for this territory in 1681. He was made proprietor and governor of the new colony, which the king titled "Pennsylvania," and he moved there in 1682. He immediately began to direct this "holy experiment" by planning the new colony's government, writing its constitution, distributing land to settlers and establishing positive, peaceful relations with the local Indians.


In some ways, Pennsylvania was a quick success: It attracted many Quakers from England and Europe, as well as members of other groups seeking religious tolerance. In the colony Quakers could live according to their religious beliefs and make political decision according to those beliefs. Penn also created an elected legislature as a feature of Pennsylvania’s self-government.

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John Locke

John Locke was born August 29,1632 in Somerset England. He was widely known as the Father of Liberalism. He was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. His work had a great impact upon the development of political philosophy.


His writings influenced American revolutionaries and other enlightened thinkers, like Charles de Montesquieu, William Blackstone, and Benjamin Franklin. His feelings that government can be modified by its creators at any time heavily influenced Thomas Jefferson and the writing of the Declaration of Independence.


In 1689, John Locke published Two Treaties of Government which discussed natural rights (unalienable rights) and identified them as being "life, liberty, and estate (property)", and argued that such fundamental rights could not be surrendered. The preservation of these unalienable rights was claimed as justification for the rebellion of the American colonies.


Locke believed that personal liberty could coexist with political order. He believed consent of the people is the basis for government and that people fix the limits of their government. Government is a social contract with limited powers and has obligations to its creators. Locke also discussed legislative and executive branches of a government. Charles de Montesquieu will eventually add to these thoughts and propose a judicial branch.

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Charles de Montesquieu

Charles de Montesquieu was born in Bordeaux, France, in 1689 to a wealthy family. Despite his family's wealth, de Montesquieu was placed in the care of a poor family during his childhood. He later went to college and studied science and history, eventually becoming a lawyer in the local government.

Later he was a member of the Bordeaux and French Academies of Science and studied the laws and customs and governments of the countries of Europe. He gained fame in 1721 with his Persian Letters, which criticized the lifestyle and liberties of the wealthy French as well as the church. However, Montesquieu's book On the Spirit of Laws, published in 1748, was his most famous work. It outlined his ideas on how government would best work.

Montesquieu argued that the best government would be one in which power was balanced among three groups of officials. He thought England - which divided power between the king (who enforced laws), Parliament (which made laws), and the judges of the English courts (who interpreted laws) - was a good model of this. 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. That way, the government would avoid placing too much power with one individual or group of individuals. He wrote, "When the [law making] and [law enforcement] powers are united in the same person... there can be no liberty."


According to Montesquieu, each branch of government could limit the power of the other two branches. Therefore, no branch of the government could threaten the freedom of the people. His ideas about separation of powers became the basis for the United States Constitution.

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William Blackstone

William Blackstone was born in London, on July 10, 1723. He was educated at the Charterhouse School and at Oxford and entered the Middle Temple in London in 1740. He was elected a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, in 1744 and received the bachelor of civil law degree in 1745. Although he was admitted to the bar in 1746, he had limited success in practicing law and continued to hold several university posts and to lecture on English law.


Blackstone was one of the few to present an in depth look at English law. The Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769), which grew out of Blackstone's university lectures, is a very readable elementary text. In Commentaries, Blackstone blended the intellectual traditions of the common law with those of 17th-and 18th-century English political philosophy.


Blackstone is considered as the definitive pre-Revolutionary War source of common law. He believed strongly in religious tolerance and supported the idea of self-defense, which later became the 2nd Amendment. He wrote about “natural rights” which included life and liberty.