In the later years of the Enlightenment, absolute monarchs in several European countries adopted some of the ideas of Enlightenment political philosophers. However, although some changes and reforms were implemented, most of these rulers did not fundamentally change absolutist rule.
In Russia, empress Catherine the Great, a subscriber to the ideas of Beccaria and de Gouges, decried torture while greatly improving education, health care, and women’s rights, as well as clarifying the rights of the nobility. She also insisted that the Russian Orthodox Church become more tolerant of outsiders. However, she continued to imprison many of her opponents and maintained censorship and serfdom.
In Austria, monarchs Maria-Theresa and Joseph II worked to end mistreatment of peasants by abolishing serfdom and also promoted individual rights, education, and religious tolerance. An admirer of Voltaire, Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia, supported the arts and education, reformed the justice system, improved agriculture, and created a written legal code. However, although these reforms strengthened and streamlined the Prussian state, the tax burden continued to fall on peasants and commoners.
Spain had a great deal of censorship in place during the early Enlightenment, but when Charles III ascended the throne in 1759, he implemented a number of reforms. During his tenure, Charles III weakened the influence of the Church, enabled land ownership for the poor, and vastly improved transportation routes.
Not all the aftereffects of the Enlightenment were productive. Despite the advances in literacy, thought, and intellectual discussion that accompanied the Enlightenment, middle- and upper-class citizens often mistakenly carried this open-mindedness to an excessive degree. In many cases, this open-mindedness manifested itself in pure gullibility, as supposedly well-educated Europeans fell prey to “intellectual” schemes and frauds based on nothing more than superstition and clever speech.
For instance, during the eighteenth century, people who called themselves phrenologists convinced many Europeans that a person’s character could be analyzed through the study of the contours of the skull. Likewise, the quack field of physiognomy claimed to be able to predict psychological characteristics, such as a predisposition to violence, by analyzing facial features or body structure. Similar medical hoaxes were common throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some more dangerous than others, such as the continuing practice of bloodletting.
Although many of these misguided Enlightenment scientists believed that their methods could work, many were charlatans who knew exactly what they were doing. The world was wide-eyed and eager for new knowledge and, as of yet, lacked the fact-checking capabilities to separate real discoveries from pure deception.
Across the Atlantic, the Enlightenment had a profound impact on the English colonies in America and ultimately on the infant nation of the United States. The colonial city of Philadelphia emerged as a chic, intellectual hub of American life, strongly influenced by European thought. Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was the consummate philosophe: a brilliant diplomat, journalist, and scientist who traveled back and forth between Europe and America, acting as a conduit of ideas between them. He played a pivotal role in the American Revolution, which began in 1775, and the subsequent establishment of a democratic government under the Thomas Jefferson–penned Declaration of Independence (1776).
The political writer Thomas Paine (1737–1809) also brought Enlightenment ideas to bear on the American Revolution. An Englishman who immigrated to America, Paine was inspired by America and wrote the political pamphlet Common Sense (1776), which encouraged the secession of the colonies from England. Later in his life, Paine’s religious views and caustic demeanor alienated him from much of the public, and he died in somewhat ill repute.
In many ways, the new United States was the Enlightenment, for its leaders could actually implement many of the ideas that European philosophers could only talk idly about. Americans were exposed to, and contributed to, the leading works of science, law, politics, and social order, yet lacked the traditions and conservatism that impeded the European countries from truly changing their ways. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence borrows heavily from Enlightenment themes—even taking passages from Locke and Rousseau—and the U.S. Constitution implements almost verbatim Locke and Montesquieu’s ideas of separation of power. America was founded as a deist country, giving credit to some manner of natural God yet allowing diverse religious expression, and also continued in the social and industrial veins that were begun in Europe.
Just a decade after the revolution in America, France followed suit, with the French Revolution,which began in 1789. Empowered by the political philosophies of the Enlightenment, the French citizenry overthrew the monarchy of Louis XVI and established a representative government that was directly inspired by Enlightenment thought. This harmonious arrangement, however, soon fell prey to internal dissent, and leadership changed hands throughout the years that followed. The instability reached a violent climax with the ascent of Maximilien Robespierre, an extremist who plunged the revolution into the so-called Reign of Terror of 1793–1794, beheading more than 15,000 suspected enemies and dissenters at the guillotine. (For more information, see the History SparkNote The French Revolution.)
Distraught Frenchmen and other Europeans reacted to the tyranny of the Reign of Terror, as well as subsequent oppressive governments in France, by blaming the Enlightenment. These critics claimed that the Enlightenment’s attacks on tradition and questioning of norms would always lead inevitably to instability. Moreover, many critics in the nobility saw the violence of the Reign of Terror as proof positive that the masses, however “enlightened,” could never be trusted to govern themselves in an orderly fashion. Indeed, most historians agree that the French Revolution effectively marked the end of the Enlightenment. France itself reacted against the violence of the revolution by reverting to a military dictatorship under Napoleon that lasted fifteen years.
Despite the brutalities of the French Revolution and the lingering resentment toward many philosophes, the Enlightenment had an indisputably positive effect on the Western world. Scientific advances laid an indestructible foundation for modern thought, while political and other philosophies questioned and ultimately undermined oppressive, centuries-old traditions in Europe. After several transitional decades of instability in Europe, nearly everyone in Europe—along with an entire population in the United States—walked away from the Enlightenment in a better position. The movement resulted in greater freedom, greater opportunity, and generally more humane treatment for all individuals. Although the world still had a long way to go, and indeed still does, the Enlightenment arguably marked the first time that Western civilization truly started to become civilized.