Philosophers such as John Locke and the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution demanded that the rights of the individual be acknowledged by the leading social governing body. But even today, the balance between the rights of the individual and the state is an imperfect one: to what degree do individuals have a right to critique the government, to set their own moral terms of the private behavior, and what ethical as well as legal obligations does the individual have to the community? America's intense individualism tends to deemphasize the obligations of citizens to others.
A third controversial development during this period was the development of capitalism. Before capitalism, the self-sustaining farm or fiefdom was the predominant economic mode. However, mechanized and specialized labor that took the form of wage labor where "humans work for wages rather than for product" became more common (Hooker, 1996, capitalism). Arguably, in a Marxist understanding of capitalism, the wage slave toils, while the capitalist owner does not, and merely profits from owning the factory -- thus the idea of collective ownership of property to prevent exploitation. Today, there is an imperfect system in place: we live under a balance between pure capitalism and Marxism. Modern industrialized nations endorse and protect private ownership, but prohibit certain abuses by employers, and extend state benefits such as pensions for the elderly, and in some nations, healthcare.
The role of women in society as workers and citizens continues to be debated today -- although the common conception of women in the Middle Ages is that they were 'second class citizens,' this picture does not tell the whole truth. Women often administered property when their husbands were away on Crusades. Although nuns lacked the institutional authority of monks, priests, and the higher-level clergy, they often created works of lasting artistic value, and many women were active in the development of the proto-mercantilist capitalist system. Yet even during the French Revolution, the most radical of all revolutions to sweep Europe, the rights of women were separately defined from those of men. Women, although active in the revolution in their support of its leaders and as symbols, did not ascend to full equality. In the United States' permanent, radical social upheaval during the Enlightenment, American women did not win the right to vote until the 20th century, and only in the 1970s did women begin to assume a fully, legally equal role with men in elite educational and social institutions such as the Ivy League, Congress, and the military.
Finally, the question of nationalism, and the role of the nation-state continues to be debated. Does the U.S. have an enforcing role in the world community? Are there inalienable human rights that transcend national borders? The nation-state is historically a relatively new, modern invention, as once upon a time, monarchies were fairly decentralized, until the Enlightenment. Gradually, formerly fractious conglomerations of city-states came under the control of a central ruler. Even during the 19th century in the U.S., the question of whether the U.S. was a confederation of states or a federal organization with states subservient to a national government was open for debate. Did states exist based upon shared national identity, upon the right of a collective investment of faith or democratic authority in a ruler, or the arbitrarily given (and withdrawn) consent of the governed? "Monarchies began to slowly erode as democratic sentiments rose and this led to serious doubts about the nature of human political institutions, and a variety of philosophical answers were produced to meet these doubts. Among these answers was the idea that states were governed by natural laws; these laws were immutable, rational, and understandable by human reason" (Hooker, 1996, Social contract). Today, within the international community, of which the U.S. is a vital component part, the question of what constitutes a nation-state, a people, and a democracy remains undecided, and the President's interpretation of the concepts of democracy and nation-states inevitably affects how the U.S. responds to international questions of legitimacy in other nations.
Hooker, Richard. (1996). Capitalism. European Enlightenment Glossary.
Retrieved August 3, 2009 at http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/GLOSSARY/CAPITAL.htm
Hooker, Richard. (1996). The divine right of kings. European Enlightenment Glossary.
Retrieved August 3, 2009 at http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/GLOSSARY/DIVRIGHT.htm
Hooker, Richard. (1996). Social contract. European Enlightenment Glossary.
Retrieved August 3, 2009 http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/GLOSSARY/SOCCON.HTM