Gov: Roots of Democracy


Roots of Democracy
The traditions and principles of English government had a great influence on political views in the colonies. Although the colonists eventually rebelled against British rule, they had great respect for Britain’s constitutional system. This system was based on a set of laws, customs, and practices that limited the powers of government and guaranteed the people certain basic rights. The seeds for the idea of limited government first appeared in the Magna Carta of 1215. In 1689, Parliament passed the English Bill of Rights, which set clear limits on the monarch. In fact, one reason the colonists rebelled was to secure the “rights of Englishmen” that they believed had been denied to them.

Colonial leaders were also strongly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement of the 1600s and 1700s. Enlightenment thinkers stressed the value of science and reason, not only for studying the natural world, but also for improving human society and government.

Two key figures of the early Enlightenment were the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Both men helped develop the social-contract theory, which stated that people in society agreed to give up some of their freedom to governments in exchange for security and order. Two French thinkers also made major contributions to political thought during the Enlightenment. One was Charles-Louis de Secondat, more commonly known as Baron de Montesquieu. The other was Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The colonists gathered ideas about government from many sources and traditions. But these ideas did not all come from the study of ancient history or European philosophy. They were also shaped by the colonists’ everyday experiences of life in colonial America.

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