As with most social movements, it's nearly impossible to set definitive beginning and end points for the Age of Enlightenment, but generally speaking, it spanned portions of the 1700s and 1800s. Famous American figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were all influenced by the Enlightenment, although the real hotbeds of the movement were in England and France.
Just what the Age of Enlightenment was is as interesting as when it occurred. It was a period when influential thinkers in places such as France and England were beginning to challenge, through rational thought and rigorous adherence to reason, the views that had so long held sway in their countries. The authority of the church and state were called into question; superstition was thrown aside. Science held greater sway, offering a pathway to a better understanding of society and a betterment of society itself through innovation [source: Union County College].
Some of the Enlightenment's greatest contributors included Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Paine and Jefferson. The Frenchman Voltaire, while living among the aristocratic, thought not so much about throwing over privileged classes but instead educating them to the possibility that through use of their own reason they could create a better society, if not a democracy. Rousseau, by contrast, had no love lost for aristocracies, and sought something closer to democracy [source: Washington State University].
The Enlightenment thinkers were no strangers to colonial leaders such as Ben Franklin, George Washington, Jefferson and Paine. Some of them has spent time in France and had had a chance to study French and English thinkers' views on the nature of man, his own chance for self-determination and the more sweeping notions of freedom from tyranny. It's no surprise, then, that such sentiments were so strongly echoed in the founding documents that were to underpin America's approach to government and describe America itself.
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