Benjamin Franklin and the American Enlightenment

Benjamin Franklin is widely considered on of the greatest thinkers in American history; and, like many of the other great Enlightenment philosophers, contributed to the new waves of thinking on many different levels, and he reflected the new ideas and ideologies of the Enlightenment in Europe onto the newly formed United States.

Franklin's Enlightenment developments began with his self-education on the principles of the Enlightenment in Europe and a religious and practical education sponsored by his father; and he continued to read the works of some of the most notable philosophers of this time, including John Locke's “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, William Wollaston's “The Religion of Nature Delineated” (1690), and Shaftsbury's (1671-1713) works on the separation of morality from religion. These publications helped shape Franklin into the thinker we know him as today. While he may not have conceived many of the conclusions that he created regarding society, he did shape theories from other philosophers to best fit the United States at that time.

Franklin's opposition to organized religion further reflected the beliefs of the Enlightenment; as a deist, he believed in a supreme being that created the universe and the natural laws that govern it, then stepped away. This belief in a system of natural laws is part of the foundation that the Enlightenment was built on, many of the philosophers of this time spent large portions of their lives on finding the natural laws that operate the universe – both scientific and sociopolitical. These studies led to the development (after Franklin's death and the Enlightenment) of ideas such as Social Darwinism and other scientific theories that could be applied to social sciences as well.

While many historians and philosophers question the existence of an Enlightenment in America, the presence of Enlightenment ideas and philosophies is without question. Many American notables read and debated the writings of the Enlightenment, and many of them published their own philosophies, including Franklin who published many essays and letters in newspapers both in the United States and in England. His contribution to the expansion of Enlightenment philosophy in the newly formed United States is enormous, and many of his writings remain popular references to this day.

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