Issues & Insights

Now More Than Ever, America Needs To Remember Enlightenment Ideals

An old schoolroom. Today's schools leave out an important part of America's legacy: It's founding under Enlightenment ideals. Photo: Paul Brennan, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Thumbing through my third-grade son’s school materials for a lesson on voting and democracy, I was struck by something that years, maybe even months, earlier would have shocked me, but now seems unfortunately the sign of the times.

This booklet — remember, for elementary school students — wasn’t trying to evoke good feelings about how voting gives every American the right to direct how their government works. Instead, the booklet focused almost entirely on what populations didn’t initially have the vote in America. (And, strangely, it threw in a section on César Chávez’ unionization of farm workers.)

Now, it would be one thing if this was simply one booklet for one class in one grade in one school system. But it’s not. It’s part of a much larger attempt by various academics, public intellectuals, and the like to dismember the ideals at the core of our nation’s founding. There’s no doubt America is imperfect — what nation isn’t? — but that shouldn’t mean we should discount or discredit the foundational principles that our country is built on.

What my son’s booklet could’ve focused on instead was the consent of the governed, the idea that power comes solely from those who are ruled, not by the whims of a ruler. It could have celebrated the fact that in America, we have every ability to change the way rulers operate when they get out of hand. The booklet could have highlighted these classic, though modern, concepts that we derived from the Enlightenment era — the ideas that made their way into the fabric of most Western democracies and most devotedly to our shores.

There may be much to discuss and debate about the men who started this nation, but there’s something on which we cannot compromise: The emblematic ideals of the Enlightenment that all men are created as equals, government exists to protect our inherent and individual natural rights, and we should be ruled by reason.

These principles have made this country, for all its flaws, the greatest that mankind has ever known — providing economic, religious, social, and political freedom at a level unseen in human history. The conceptual focus may have differed depending on the Enlightenment philosopher you might have been reading, but each of these ideals led to various political and social revolutions in their home countries: equality, sovereignty of reason, liberalism, tolerance, objective truth, and individual liberty.

But what’s amassed against these ideals is a fierce, loud, and sometimes violent opposition. What’s more, the challengers explicitly reject the foundational ideals contained in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

And it doesn’t really matter whether you speak of its origin in terms of postmodernism, critical race theory, or some other formerly fringe discipline that’s entered the cultural milieu. Because each of them, at some level, share a critical feature — that truth is relative and arguments can only be evaluated based on the identity of the person advocating them, not on the merits themselves.

The philosophical foundation of all our work at the Pacific Legal Foundation is individualism. That each person has value, that each person should be treated equally, that each person has distinct hopes and dreams, and that each person should have the opportunity to flourish.

Because our work derives its purpose from the sanctity of each person as an individual, so much of the rhetoric and activity — whether through cancel culture, overt discrimination, or even the rejection of reason, merit, and property rights — hoping to tear down our institutions is frightening. And there’s a plain reason to be alarmed: it exalts group identity over the individual, allowing a simple characteristic to define the complexities of each human being. The collective is more important than each of us.

Discussions of sensitive topics, especially race, can quickly devolve from reasonable arguments about principle and policy into ad hominem attacks on the messenger. One of the great classical liberal values is the free exchange of differing ideas, the time-honored thrust and parry of words. Debate should be encouraged. And, as a nation of individuals, there can be no calls to hew to today’s orthodoxy — or else.

Furthermore, we reject the belief that words or inaction can be violence. There is no other way for us to settle differences — in fact, there may be no way to do it without actual violence — unless each of us is allowed the ability to use the written and spoken word to persuade and convince. It is the marketplace of ideas in which our words can offend, compete, and ultimately win out as knowledge.

That’s what we intend to continue doing to defeat the anti-Enlightenment threat. We’re in the liberty business and, through ligation, outreach, and communications, we achieve the promises made — even if yet unfulfilled — at the founding of this country of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as reflected in the Declaration and protected by the Constitution. And we do this through the peaceful means contemplated by our liberal tradition.

Thankfully, we’ve been successful, winning hundreds of cases that have vindicated the rights of thousands of people across the country, including a dozen wins in 14 tries at the U.S. Supreme Court. We’ve always been freedom fighters, so you can expect to see ever-more PLF devotion to counter this growing, existential menace. We also know that we’ll win in the end.

Steven D. Anderson is president and CEO of Pacific Legal Foundation.

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2 comments

  • HAMLET, ACT I SCENE IV
    Horatio:
    And there assume some other horrible form,
    Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
    And draw you into madness? think of it:
    The very place puts toys of desperation,
    Without more motive, into every brain
    That looks so many fathoms to the sea
    And hears it roar beneath.

  • The Founding Fathers embrace of Enlightenment principles, for instance democracy as we know it, didn’t include a vote on rebellion against the UK, which was, of course, treason. We’ll never know if the majority of the population was in favor of severing political ties.

    The Enlightenment concept of equality among men didn’t extend to native Americans or African imports. Native Americans weren’t given citizenship in their own land of birth until the 1920s. Tribes don’t legally exist until they’ve been recognized by the federal government. Their supposed sovereignty is heavily circumscribed by both federal and state governments.

    The War Between the States, fought ostensibly to free the slaves, resulted in those some of those newly freed slaves being formed into military units, the Buffalo Soldiers, whose duty it was to kill native Americans and facilitate the “Manifest Destiny” of the US, which was to eradicate the natives from the entire continent and replace them with European immigrants. How this fits into Enlightenment philosophy is difficult to explain.

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