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Democracy - Age Of Enlightenment And Revolution

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The Enlightenment, by underlining the human capacity for rational and critical thought, for scientific and intellectual inquiry, and generally for the future growth and "perfectibility" of humanity, slowly subverted the cultural, religious, and traditional foundations of state and society. Thinkers such as Voltaire (1694–1778) and Denis Diderot (1713–1784) in France, and David Hume (1711–1776) and Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) in Britain, inquired into the natural and historical sources of political and social power. They produced a body of work that linked political and civil liberty and freedom of thought and speech with cultural, moral-intellectual, and scientific progress. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (1712–1778) critique of the Enlightenment paradoxically affirmed the movement's belief in the centrality of human will and liberty. For Rousseau, liberty and equality define the human, such that the people assembling together as sovereign generate the general will that looks to the public, as opposed to the private, good. The general will as the embodiment of popular sovereignty was a radical critique of the inequality and the competition within civil society.

The spirit of opposition to established forms of authority (whether secular or religious), the distrust of any government not derived from rational consent, culminated in the American Revolution and its penchant for constitution building. American revolutionaries proclaimed the sovereignty of the people while simultaneously constructing a political structure that would limit and channel the power of popular majorities. They preached a new secular order while buttressing it with arguments that reached back to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. The political literature of the Revolution adumbrated and summarized the arguments for and against democracy since Plato. From Thomas Paine (1737–1809), who explicitly defended democracy, to John Adams (1735–1826), who feared direct popular rule, Americans during the two decades of revolution and constitutional experimentation attempted to find a balance between the few and the many, the rich and the poor. The compromise presented by the federalists asserted the legitimating and authorizing role of the people while establishing a self-regulating system of checks and balances at both the state and national levels. Legitimate power would issue from popular majorities, but institutional mechanisms such as separation of powers, federalism, bicameral legislatures, and indirect election would channel, control, and check the power of the people.

The American Revolution began the slow process that changed the meaning of democracy as it was understood from the Greeks to Rousseau (direct rule of the people meeting together in their assembly). As James Madison (1751–1836) noted, direct democracy, which is feasible (according to Rousseau and Claude-Adrien Helvétius) only in small states, is prone to violence and class strife; what is needed is a republic where representation refines and filters the opinion of the people. Representation both controls popular passions and makes popular government possible over a large territory and a numerous population.

The French Revolution, in terms more radical and clear than the American, proclaimed the rights of man and the citizen. It contrasted these with the privileges and aristocratic inequalities of the old order. In Jacobin ideology, the people were increasingly identified with the nation. Jacobin terror and the supremacy of Maximilien de Robespierre (1758–1794) reinforced the traditional historical unease and distaste with popular rule. Republican and democratic ideas—popular sovereignty, government as guarantor and custodian of natural rights, the idea of citizenship, and the right to liberty and equality under law—spread throughout Europe. Lively and sometimes bitter polemics emerged, some like Edmund Burke (1729–1797) attacking the Revolution, others like Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) defending it. The novelty was that for the first time democracy and popular government were defended by elements of the educated and wealthy classes.

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