Because of the wording of the "Declaration of Independence," Locke is perhaps the most famous Enlightenment influence upon the Founding Fathers. However, a number of Continental Enlightenment philosophers had great influence upon the shape of the new nation: "Jean-Jacques Rousseau…distrusted the aristocrats not out of a thirst for change but because he believed they were betraying decent traditional values…Rousseau argued that inequality was not only unnatural, but that -- when taken too far -- it made decent government impossible" (Brians 2002). The French philosopher Voltaire's irreverent attitude towards religion and Rousseau's scrupulous belief in the integrity of the 'natural' man, untouched by law and custom, is reflected in the Founding Founders' notions of a society that was based upon a rule of law, rather than upon the whims of a leader. Rights rather than birthright were to govern the new American state.
The philosopher of criminology Beccaria's influence should not be underestimated, either, upon the shaping of the new nation. Beccaria believed in the malleability of human nature: laws could be used to shape human being's decision-making. Crime and punishment could be educational, rather than harshly brutal....
Punishment should not be used to keep people in line through fear: punishment must be certain, swift, but proportionate. These ideas were later reflected in the U.S. Constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment (Hoffman 2002).
Another often-forgotten philosophical influence in the founding of the American system is that of Montesquieu, who said: "In republican governments, men are all equal; equal they are also in despotic governments: in the former, because they are everything; in the latter, because they are nothing." His belief in the right of every individual to maximize their happiness, so long as it did not harm others, and "his faith in the balance of power and the division of authority as a weapon against despotic rule by individuals or groups or majorities" also lives on in the U.S. Constitution today ("Montesquieu," Thoughts worth thinking, 2010).
Brians, Paul. "The Enlightenment." University of Wisconsin-Madison. March 11, 1998. Last
Revised May 18, 2000. February 10, 2010. http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/enlightenment.html
Hoffman, Bruce. "Beccaria." Crime Theory. January 2002. February 10, 2010.
"Montesquieu." Thoughts worth thinking. February 10, 2010.
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