The Enlightenment & The Founding Fathers in the United States and Ireland
David McConnell, HAI Honorary President
Ireland and the United States can be looked at from the prospective of how their founding fathers adopted the principles of the period known as the enlightenment. Bernard Cohen, an historian of science at Harvard University, shows in his book ‘Science and the Founding Fathers (1995), that four out of the seven founding fathers of the United States – Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Madison – used scientific concepts to formulate ideas about government. This establishes their credentials as citizens of the age of reason and enlightenment.
The enlightenment was the most important period between the Roman Empire and today. Known as ‘The Long 18th Century’ and based in Europe, it was the true beginning of modernity and civilisation. The scientific thinking and principles of this period are still fundamental to western democracy today Between 1543/1687 Galileo, Newton & others proved that rather than the planets and stars revolving around the earth, the earth revolves around the sun. This was revolutionary and was mostly due to Galileo’s invention of the telescope.
How does this relate to humanism? Before the enlightenment, the church dictated the thoughts, actions and lifestyles of the ordinary person. Scientists, especially Francis Bacon’s work The Great Instauration (1620), now gave examples of logic based on facts of nature. They pushed for the freedom for the individual to think, write and go about their lives and pushed for the emancipation of women. This upset the church and weakened their power. However, it was still dangerous to oppose ecclesiastical teachings as it could mean loss of freedom or life. E.g., in 1630 the church was able to sentence Galileo to house arrest for the remainder of his life.
Did these men believe in God? They were known as Deists and their belief, based solely on reason, was in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life.
In 1776 America achieved its independence from Great Britain mostly through the efforts of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was a scientist, diplomat, ambassador to France and an inventor. His scientific knowledge was so highly regarded by the French that they agreed to fund the colonists in their uprising against the British. The Declaration of Independence owes much of its content to the ideals of enlightenment of Franklin and the other founding fathers. It contains the best known words in the English language “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”
Do we think the founding fathers of the Irish Free State such as Emmet, Tone, Davis and other Fenians were intensely interested in the ideas of enlightenment? Were they interested in freedom of thought, improvement of civilisation or an enlightened system of education? No – they had no curiosity and it has taken sixty to eighty years for the ideas of enlightenment to reach down to Ireland.