The Parallels between the enlightenment and the constitution
Everyday we see it in action. It controls what we do and how we do it. Our U.S. Constitution is the basis for all laws and all government in the United States. This document was an attempt by our forefathers to create a government that executed all of the principles that were put forth by the Enlightenment thinkers of the time.
The philosophers of the Enlightenment believed that they had more knowledge of how the world works than the average man did. During this time period they wrote many books and documents explaining how governments and lives should be run. The constitution is mostly a product of four of these thinkers and their idea on how government should be run. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Baron de Montesquieu wrote "social contracts" in which they explained how the government must relate to its people.
Each and every article in the Constitution is related to an individual aspect of the government. The first decides its principles in the preamble. The next three are about the three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial.
The next four are about the state privileges, mode of amendment, debts, oaths and national supremacy, and finally ratification respectively.
Thomas Hobbes could receive all of the credit for this revolution of thought. He wrote the first social contract in his book Leviathan. All other contracts were based off of this book with additional thought by their authors. Although he had the least direct influence with his book, which was largely based on the principles of Monarchy, He may be the principle reason for the Constitution's structure.
Hobbes' major contribution to the Constitution was his ideas of the elements of laws, and more specifically civil laws. He defines these laws as those rules, which the government uses for the distinction of right and wrong in society. This is in direct correlation with the ideas set forth in the first Article of the constitution. It gives Congress the power to make laws. Not only does Hobbes give this power to the sovereign, he also states that these laws are to include all laws of nature and provincial laws. All of these laws were to be made well known or else the laws would not be truly effective.
Another of his major contributions was the idea of judicial review, which is also put forth in his chapter, "On Civil Laws." He states that all laws need interpretation for no one can ever truly define a law without it. He later gives this ability to a judge who is required to make the distinction of the law. The ability set forth here by Hobbes is that laws are meant to be a set term as opposed to being undefined. Judicial review is a major part of why our democracy is so well formed through the constitution. The system we have in place is made to define the undefined in a court system. This gave the Constitution a power to be interpreted and therefore be a more commanding force. The Supreme Court during Marbury vs. Madison interpreted this law as being implied through the Constitution though not directly stated.
The final contribution Hobbes made into our Constitution was the idea of illegal ex post facto laws. These laws are designated as laws created after an offense is committed in order to punish the offender. Hobbes states that if there is no law there cannot be a crime.
The right of passing these laws was taken away by the Constitution for the purpose of having a just government. Hobbes' theory is also exemplified by the destruction of Bill of Attainder laws as well. These laws proclaim a man guilty of a crime, usually treason, without a trial. As we can see these laws would undermine any Republic.
These three principles were Hobbes' direct influence on our document of government. Yet as previously stated his followers transmitted more of his influence into the document. This influence can be felt through our news and the laws we follow in our every day life.
John Locke, a follower of Hobbes, wrote three major documents on government: his "A Letter Concerning Toleration" and his Two Treatises of Government. When the Constitution was written, its authors took many of his ideas on tolerance into account along with some of his thoughts on liberty and civil rights.
The first and foremost place in the Constitution that Locke's effects can be felt is the Preamble. His civil interests of life, liberty, health, and property are affirmed here through the ideas on what a government should protect.
By protecting these ideals first and above all Locke establishes the more perfect union spoke of within the constitution. These ideals are later upheld by Locke's thoughts on freedom of man and equality.
According to Locke's Second Treatise on Government man united together in self-preservation is a society. In this society there are two great powers the executive and legislative. Locke reinforces what Hobbes says about the creation of laws by the legislative branch but he also adds the idea of federal supremacy. There is but the one supreme government that controls the laws and actions of others. Every man that is under this society is to subordinate himself to this power in order to have his rights upheld. The constitution sets this forth in its sixth article in which it speaks of the supremacy of the document of the Constitution.
Locke also talks of a Civil Magistrate defined as the governing body, or the executive power. This person is described as the one to enforce the laws much akin to our president. The magistrate is created to ensure the equality of the enforcement of laws and to help the Legislative powers with subjects that are outside of their powers. The creation of our president is based off of Locke's idea of a magistrate.
Unlike Hobbes, Locke believed that man didn't have to submit his body and should to the governing body. He believed man because of his rights should be able to be free underneath the government. This is how he shows to tolerate all peoples through government. These are the major points of Locke's contributions into our form of a Republic.
Another major contributor to the constitution is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his book The Social Contract, he hopes that his ideas on government as a citizen could be brought into plain view. This was one of the most important books to bring about the resurgence in popularity of the Republic. Since he was a citizen he believed in his right to have a fair say in the government. This lead to the idea of the general will.
The general will can be expressed as the idea that every man the right to have and express an opinion. Once every opinion has been expressed the majority's opinion then is considered what is correct for that particular society. This is the idea of the Republic, which is evident in every article of the constitution. The fact that all positions are elected in some way, and therefore part of the general will, shows that the government had to be by the people. The actual Constitution's seventh article was ratification by the people, which shows it's total adherence to this policy of the Republic.
Besides talking of the same Lawgiver, (legislative branch) and Prince, (executive branch), as the previous philosophers he added a new twist, the usage of the general will in order to determine sovereignty and laws. In order to prove that this was the best way, he demonstrated that the general will can not err. For if people are informed they can always make the best choice for themselves. This was the major change from Rousseau's peers. Everyone before him had been of the state of mind that man must submit without input. Rousseau did not completely change this idea, although he did start the idea of a republic by voicing an opinion through a vote in the general will.
The last of the four great political philosophers to influence the Constitution was a follower of Rousseau and his predecessors, Baron de Montesquieu. Montesquieu tended to focus specifically on the laws and structure of government. In his book, The Spirit of Laws Montesquieu is accredited with the unique idea of the separation of powers. This is made very clear in our constitution by the three separate articles for the three individual branches of government, not to mention the strong implication of checks and balances in our government.
Montesquieu reaffirmed every point made by the previous Enlightenment thinkers, while adding his own unique thoughts on government. All philosophers up until this point had said the legislator may make laws, but Montesquieu finally explored upon this subject by devoting many books of his work to this topic. In fact, the powers given to the legislative branch in the constitution are nearly all directly quoted from some part of The Sprit of Laws. A few of these powers include, the collection of taxes, the regulation of commerce, the control of armies, and the right to declare war. These ideas were all incorporated into our government and enabled us to more firmly define the final aspects of our legislative branch of government.
As citizens of this nation, we benefit from these philosopher's contributions. The simple reason for all of these influences by the philosophers of the time is because in our plight to find a perfect government, we turned to people who decreed them more knowledgeable and worldly than the rest of society.
Our decision to believe others ideas affects us in every possible way. We submit to laws that we affirm for our own protection of our liberties. What made this format a success was it's ability to change over time, also that the philosophies used proved to be timeless its beliefs on how a government should be run. We are the living proof that these philosophers were correct in their hypotheses about the world and government.
In conclusion, our government would be completely different without these ideas present in the Constitution. The thoughts of these four men not only changed the course of history by building a government that has so far stood a test of trials, but also has prevailed as one of the best governments in the world. This is the single outstanding reason why we stand here today in our free republican society.