John Locke (1632–1704), the noted English philosopher, scientist, and political theorist, was one of the leading intellectuals of his age and one of the most influential architects of the modern western world. Like his French counterpart René Descartes, Locke came from a respected family and did well in school, directing his studies at Oxford University for a career as a physician. But Locke’s interests were much broader than medicine, and with the assistance of influential friends such as Lord Shaftesbury, he was appointed to a series of governmental positions following the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689 that brought William of Orange and Mary to the throne. In his Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690), Locke argued against the Divine Right Theory and began to formulate and espouse a liberal political philosophy based on the notions of natural rights, limited government, and the legitimate right of people to rebel against tyranny.
But although Locke may be best known for his political theories, he was also deeply interested in epistemology and the ways in which people acquire knowledge. In his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1690), Locke expressed frustration with overly abstract forms of thought, which he believed only yielded meaningless and futile discussions of truth and reality. Instead, Locke argued that all knowledge was based on data acquired by the dual process of sensory experience (what he called “sensation”) and subsequent mental thought and analysis (“reflection”). By stressing the importance of observation, the collection of evidence, and inductive reasoning, Locke defined a mode of inquiry called empiricism, which became the foundation for the scientific method so important to the discoveries and technological innovations of the modern world.
In the reading that follows, Locke carefully advances his new theory of human understanding. He begins with his statement of purpose, which he claims is to know and understand the limits of human knowledge. He then proceeds to explain his ideas of “sensation” and “reflection,” as well as his assertion that people are born lacking all innate ideas.
John Locke, The Works of John Locke, a New Edition, Corrected, Vol. 1 (London: Thomas Tegg, 1823): 1–2, 13, 82–84, 86–87, 90–91, 96–98, 99–103, 153–54.
Thomas Jefferson was born to a distinguished and wealthy family in Albemarle County, Virginia, in 1743. After attending the College of William and Mary and studying law, he served six years as a representative in Virginia’s colonial House of Burgesses before his election to the Second Continental Congress in 1776. After passage of the Declaration of Independence, he returned to Virginia, and as a member of the state legislature, he introduced the statute for religious toleration and other liberal measures. After a brief term as governor of Virginia (1779–1781), he returned to national politics in 1783 and served as a member of Congress, minister to France, and secretary of state in the first Washington administration. After a brief retirement at Monticello, he became the presidential candidate of the Democratic-Republican party in 1796. Jefferson narrowly lost the election to the Federalist candidate John Adams, but under the Constitutional provisions then in effect, he became vice president. In 1800, Jefferson again ran for president and was elected third president of the United States. As president, Jefferson reduced the power of the military and federal government, but he also doubled the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase (1803). After completion of his second term in 1809, Jefferson devoted most of the remaining seventeen years of his life to the founding of the University of Virginia.
The Declaration of Independence has three basic sections. It begins with a statement of political ideals, followed by a list of specific grievances against British colonial policies and a concluding final proclamation of independence. In defining the proper relationship between government and the people in the first section, Jefferson borrowed key concepts from the political theories of John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers. But in his affirmation of political ideals, Jefferson was also creating a much broader definition of what it meant to be American. This is what gives the Declaration of Independence its special place in American history: It is a clear statement of values, a blueprint for governmental institutions and laws, and a bond of unity through a common sense of national identity.
The National Archives.
Like the American Declaration, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is a stirring statement of Enlightenment principles concerning both the individual’s role in the state and the ultimate source of all government. When the Third Estate reconstituted itself as the National Assembly in June 1789, among the first measures it considered was a universal declaration of the rights and duties of individual French citizens. A proposal was made by the Marquis de Lafayette to this effect in July, but swift-moving events in Paris, such as the fall of the Bastille on July 14, moved the Revolution in new directions. Undaunted, a subcommittee continued to debate the document, editing a draft proposal of 24 articles down to 17. Like the Declaration of Independence in the American colonies (1776), this document was a compromise statement, drawn up and edited by committee.
Lynn Hunt, ed. and trans., The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History (Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1996), 77–79.
Olympe de Gouges
Women were not included among the new officeholders of Revolutionary France, nor were they members of the National Assembly, which supposedly represented all members of the country’s Third Estate. An immediate question arose concerning the extent to which the benefits of the Revolution should be extended to females (as well as to slaves throughout France’s global empire). Some men did advocate the extension of these rights and privileges, but women also took action in their own cause. Among these was the “Cercle Social” (Social Circle), a group of female activists who coordinated their publishing activities on behalf of women and their own goals in the developing Revolution.
One of the leaders of this group was Marie Gouze (1748–1793), who, under her pen name “Olympe de Gouges,” attacked both the institution of slavery and the oppression of women in 1791. A playwright, pamphleteer, and political activist, de Gouges published this thoughtful meditation on what the National Assembly should declare concerning “the rights of woman” (as opposed merely to “the rights of man”). Other members of the Social Circle were arrested as the Revolution entered its radical phase, but Olympe de Gouges was executed by guillotine in November 1793.
Lynn Hunt, ed. and trans., The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History (Boston: Bedford St. Martin–s, 1996), 124–126.
René Descartes (1596–1650) is often called the “father of modern philosophy” because his systematic method of radical doubt led to a questioning of all forms of knowledge based on revelation. Born in La Haye, France, to a modest yet respected family of the nobility, he received a Jesuit education in classical studies, Scholastic philosophy,5 and mathematics, and he later earned a degree in law from the University of Poitiers in 1616. But Descartes never practiced law, for in his early twenties he suffered a crisis of confidence that led him to question the validity and relevance of all knowledge he had acquired in school. Seeking to gain wisdom from personal experience, he joined the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau, leader of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, during the tumultuous era of the Thirty Years’ War. But while stationed in the small town of Ulm during the winter of 1620, Descartes had a sudden revelation of a new investigative method that was to form the basis of an entire new system of rational thought.
Descartes outlined the origins, components, and significance of his new mode of inquiry in the final part of his Philosophical Essays, in a section aptly titled “Discourse on Method of Rightly Conducting Reason and Seeking Truth in Sciences.” Frustrated by the uncertainties spawned by his Scholastic education and travel experiences, Descartes decided to reject all of his assumptions and beliefs until he had established rational grounds for believing something was true. In doing so, he ultimately came to the issue of his own existence, which he resolved with his famous dictum, “Cogito ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am.” Arguing that a clear consciousness of his own thinking irrefutably and logically proved his own existence, Descartes developed a method of deductive reasoning that he claimed could unlock many mysteries of the world, including the existence of God. Moreover, by expressing in philosophical terms the consequences of the scientific revolution, he provided a new conception of man as an autonomous being distinct and separate from the world that he endeavors to examine and control.
René Descartes, A Discourse on Method, trans. John Veitch (London: Dent; New York: Dutton, 1912), 3, 5, 8–9, 14–18, 26–32.
James Madison (1751–1836) was one of Virginia’s leading patriots during the Revolutionary War, was elected fourth president of United States, and led the nation during the War of 1812 with Britain. But he is probably most remembered for his pivotal role in the crafting and ratification of the United States Constitution (ratified in 1789) and its first ten amendments, more commonly known as the Bill of Rights (1791). Known and respected among his contemporaries for his skilled writing and argumentation, Madison was one of the most influential of the Founding Fathers.
The Federalist Papers are considered one of the most significant collection of documents in American political thought. Written primarily by Madison and Alexander Hamilton in 1787–1788 under the pseudonym Publius the eighty-five essays promoted the provisions and philosophy of the proposed new Constitution. In Federalist Paper No. 10, Madison discussed the threat of “factions” that could undermine the basic rights and liberties of citizens. Distrustful of democracy, he advocated a representative government made up of wise and propertied male citizens who might better discern “the true interests” of the country. Although some critics have charged that Madison and the other Founding Fathers were more concerned with protecting property than they were with liberty or equality, others credit Madison for establishing a stable and responsive government that has survived the test of time.
From The Federalist, A Commentary on the Constitution of the United States, Being a Collection of Essays Written in Support of the Constitution Agreed upon September 17, 1787, by the Federal Convention. From the original text of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. With an introduction by Edward Mead Earle. (New York: The Modern Library), 53–62.
Bernardino de Sahagún
The document included here contains descriptions of the monumental and agonizing events of the Spanish conquest of Mexico from the Aztec perspective. It was compiled at the behest and under the supervision of a Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagún (149—1590). Sahagún had arrived in New Spain, as the territory had been designated by Cortés, in 1529 at the age of thirty. He soon acquired a sophisticated mastery of Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and over the years he collected an invaluable mass of material relating to preconquest life of the native peoples. Beginning in 1547, the material was acquired by native Americans who were taught to write and who recorded the memories of elderly nobles who had witnessed the events. Later, Sahagún put the material together and edited it, finishing his General History of New Spain in 1577. Although the text was compiled under Spanish auspices and given final form by a Spanish Franciscan priest, it nonetheless imparts a sense of how the events of the conquest were perceived by the Aztecs themselves.
Excerpted from The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, edited and with an introduction by Miguel Leon-Portilla (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), 22–31, 33–35, 40–41, 51–52, 63–68.
In 1789, Olaudah Equiano published his autobiography, titled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, written by himself. The title is most appropriate, for there is little doubt that he did indeed live a very interesting and exceptional life. Born around 1745 in what is now southeastern Nigeria, he was only eleven years old when he and his sister were kidnapped by African slave traders, brought to the coast, and sold to a European slave merchant. He was then shipped across the Atlantic to the West Indies, enduring and surviving a horrific experience during the “middle passage.” He was subsequently sent to a plantation in Virginia, where he was purchased by Captain Michael Pascal, an officer in the Royal British Navy. Equiano served Pascal well for several years, acting as a shipboard powder boy during several campaigns of the Seven Years’ War. While living in England, he was able to receive some schooling, and he converted to Christianity.
His next master, a Philadelphia businessman named Robert King, returned Equiano to the West Indies and employed him as a shipping clerk. Equiano took advantage of his tolerant Quaker master and his commercial travels to engage in some petty trading of his own, and he eventually saved enough to purchase his freedom in 1766. He continued his maritime voyages as a free man for several years, joining expeditions to the Mediterranean, Central America, and a near-fatal exploratory voyage to the Arctic. He later joined the British abolitionist movement and became a popular speaker against slavery and the slave trade in England. In 1787, he was briefly involved with an ill-fated project to repatriate free blacks to Sierra Leone, but he was forced to resign after he complained about corruption and mismanagement within the organization. He returned to his speaking tours across England and wrote his autobiography, which sold very well in Great Britain and the United States. By most accounts, he died in 1797, with his final wish to return to Africa as a missionary unfulfilled.
The reading consists of excerpts taken from Equiano’s autobiography. Although originally written to promote the abolitionist cause, his accounts of his experiences seem mostly accurate. His story begins with his description of village life in Africa prior to his capture. Here he acknowledges that Africans had their own institution of slavery, but he strives to make a clear distinction between it and the slavery that he experienced and witnessed in the Caribbean. He then recounts the manner in which he was captured, brought to the coast, and transported to the West Indies. His detailed and moving description clearly conveys the shock and subsequent demoralization that accompanied the loss of freedom and removal from one’s ancestral home. It is also interesting to compare his story with the account found in Jacques Barbot’s journal and to identify, analyze, and explain the ways in which they are similar and different. The next section focuses on Equiano’s experiences in the Caribbean, his views on African–European relations, and his unceasing efforts to win his freedom. Through his own example, he illustrates the behaviors and attitudes required for slaves to make the most of their situation. The reading ends with his final plea for abolition, in which he crafts an argument that blends both moral and economic factors in support of ending the trade in slaves.
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, written by himself, in Equiano’s Travels, ed. Paul Edwards (Oxford: Heinemann Press, 1996): 1–3, 6–9, 13–14, 22–28, 57–67, 143–46. Copyright © 1996 Heinemann Publishers.
This famous letter is often cited as an early sign of Galileo’s inevitable conflict with church authorities over the Copernican system of planetary motion—and the theory’s theological, as well as its scientific, ramifications. Galileo (1564–1642) would be condemned to house arrest in 1632 and forced to make a public repudiation of the heliocentric theory first advanced by Copernicus in the sixteenth century. However, Galileo’s connection to the renowned Medici family of Florence was also cause for comment—and caution—from 1610, when he received an appointment and an implicit endorsement from them.
Constructing a telescope in 1609 (which he proudly claimed could “magnify objects more than 60 times”), Galileo trained it on the moons of Jupiter, which he tracked over several days in 1610. Having named these objects for the Medici family, he rushed these and many other astronomical observations into print in the Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger). Inviting other scientists to “apply themselves to examine and determine” these planetary motions, Galileo demonstrated a preference for the Copernican theory and elicited sharp responses, particularly from church officials. In 1615, the dowager Grand Duchess Christina, mother of his patron, Cosimo II, expressed her own reservations about the implications of the Copernican theory for a passage in the Old Testament. Galileo’s response attempts, or seems to attempt, to reconcile experimental science and received religion.
Galileo Galilei, The Essential Galileo, ed. and trans. Maurice A. Finocchiaro (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2008), §4.2.5—4.2.6, 140–144.
In 1781, while recovering from a fall from his horse, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) penned his Notes on the State of Virginia, a wide-ranging critical assessment of conditions in his home state in the successful aftermath of the American victory at Yorktown. At age thirty-eight, he already had a distinguished career, having served as a colonial legislator, a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates, and governor of Virginia. He was also widely known and respected for the drafting of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In this document, Jefferson clearly expressed the Enlightenment era’s concern for the natural rights of mankind, which Jefferson identified as the rights of life, liberty, and happiness for all. But in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson’s views on Africans and slavery seem to conflict with his earlier stated beliefs. This is more understandable when one considers the ambiguities and contradictions within Jefferson’s own life. Although he drafted legislation to end the slave trade in Virginia in 1778, Jefferson remained a slave owner until the day he died. And although he clearly regarded Africans as an inferior people, there is widespread evidence that he had an amorous affair with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves.
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden. University of North Carolina Press (1982): 138–43, 162–63.
Born in Dublin to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, Edmund Burke (1729–1797) struggled to build a political career in Georgian England. Having established a reputation for brilliant thinking and speaking, he entered Parliament in 1766. One of his principal causes in the 1760s and 1770s was the defense of the American colonists in their conflict with the mother country. Burke opposed the English government’s position that England was sovereign over the colonies and could tax the colonists as she saw fit. By contrast, Burke insisted that a “right” was not an abstract principle and that policy should be guided by actual circumstances. When the French Revolution began in 1789, Burke surprised some of his political allies by speaking against it, mainly because he believed that “reason” and “rights” were not absolute principles that justified violent change. His statement against the extremes of revolution, published in November 1790, became the basis for a form of political ideology known as conservatism.
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Thomas H. D. Mahoney (Indianapolis: Liberal Arts, 1955), 66, 68–69, 70–71, 73–74.
As a young man in England, Thomas Paine worked a series of low-paying, menial jobs, from most of which he was quickly fired, being perceived as an uncooperative “troublemaker.” In 1774, at the age of 37, seeming to be a total failure in every profession he had attempted, he hired passage on a ship to the American colonies. Fortunately, Paine had a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, whom he had met after a scientific lecture in London. On the strength of this letter, Paine found employment as a printer and writer in Philadelphia, and soon became the editor of a journal called the Pennsylvania Magazine. Incensed by the abuses to which the colonists were subject, he encouraged his fellow Americans to make a formal break with Britain. He also wrote and published a series of editorials protesting the American institution of slavery, castigating those who were agitating for their own “liberty” while denying it so cruelly to others.
Paine published his thoughts on independence in pamphlet form in January 1776 under the title Common Sense. So popular was the document that General Washington ordered that it be read aloud to his troops as they froze along the Delaware River on Christmas Eve 1776. Declaring, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine continued to offer encouragement to the soldiers in pamphlets later published as The American Crisis, and his efforts on behalf of the American cause were recognized by many of the founding fathers of the country during the Revolution.
When he heard about the storming of the Bastille in Paris in July 1789, Paine rushed to France to be a part of this new revolution. Soon afterward, he had the honor of delivering the key to the Bastille’ from the Marquis de Lafayette to Washington, at which time, he declared, his heart “leaped with joy.” When Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution were published in 1790, Paine felt he had been betrayed by his former friend, with whom he had had many conversations and a meeting of minds in the American cause. As a result, he published The Rights of Man, a strong rebuke of Burke’s philosophy and commentary, in February 1791. The work was dedicated to the first president of the United States, George Washington.
The Life and Major Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: Citadel, 1945), 316–317, 340–341.
Jacques Barbot (also known as James Barbot) was born around 1650 to a Protestant family in Saint-Martin on the Ile de Re, near the French seaport of La Rochelle. Little is known about his early life, but it is likely that he was engaged in commerce at an early age. The Barbot family had a long history in maritime trade, and Jacques’ younger brother Jean became involved in slave trading at an early age, organizing voyages for the Royal Africa Company, one of the largest slave trading companies in Europe. In 1685, both Barbot brothers emigrated to England following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had granted religious toleration of Protestantism in France. Once settled in England, they started their own commercial firm, assisted by additional investors and speculators.
Their first slaving expedition in 1697 ended in a disastrous shipwreck. The next year they tried again, purchasing the Albion-Frigate and refitting it for slaving operations. Jacques accompanied the Albion-Frigate on its maiden African voyage to New Calabar, along what was then known as the “Slave Coast.” The ship left England in 1698, carrying 24 guns, 60 men, and a cargo of manufactured goods worth 2,600 pounds sterling. In little more than three months’ time they purchased 648 slaves and enough food and provisions for the “middle passage,” or the trip across the Atlantic. The trip was not entirely successful: midway through the passage, the slaves found an opportunity to revolt, and in the ensuing fight three sailors and twenty-eight captives were killed before Europeans regained control.
Slave journals such as Barbot’s were written primarily to instruct future travelers and traders about Africa, so they are a very useful historical source for understanding the organization and operation of the slave trade, although from one perspective. Barbot’s journal reveals that slave trading was a dangerous but potentially very lucrative enterprise. Tropical fevers, competition from European rivals, profit-seeking African sellers, and the perilous “middle passage” made slave trading a risky business but one worth pursuing when one compares the purchase costs with the sale prices. It is also interesting to note the character of African–European relations as portrayed by Barbot and his attitudes concerning Africans and their culture. His account of African involvement in the trade, particularly the special role played by local leaders, also provides a glimpse into the impact of the slave trade on African society.
Jacques Barbot’s account has been preserved in his brother Jean Barbot’s English account of his voyages, published in 1732. The selections in this reading come George Francis Dow, ed., Slave Ships and Slaving (Salem, MA: Marine Research Society, 1927), 73–87.
Toussaint L’Ouverture was the founder of the second independent nation in the New World and the leader of the most successful slave revolt in Western history. He was born on a plantation in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and lived his first thirty-four years as a slave. His experience in bondage was less brutal and more fortunate than that of most slaves in Haiti, and in 1777 he was granted his freedom. When the slave revolt broke out in 1791, Toussaint first helped his former master to escape before he joined the attacks on other plantations. He soon emerged as a principal leader among the former slaves and was determined to preserve their liberty from slavery.
The readings from the Haitian Revolution selected here cover a seven-year time span that highlights the tension between Toussaint’s idealistic principles and the pragmatic policies he felt compelled to adopt. In the short Proclamation of 29 August 1793, Toussaint makes clear his goals and attempts to encourage others to join him. In his letter to the French Minister of Marine (13 April 1799), Toussaint further explains his goals and actions to the French government now controlled by the more conservative Directory, which viewed Toussaint with suspicion and disfavor. In a similar letter to the Directory (28 October 1797), Toussaint attempted to reaffirm his commitment to the ideals of liberty while also exposing the double standards by which colonial nations have condemned the actions of the colonized. The last document, the Forced Labor Decree of 1800, contains the essence of Toussaint’s social and economic policy, which was centered on the militarization of Haitian society.
George Tyson, ed., Toussaint L’Ouverture. Prentice-Hall 1973): 28, 30–31.
Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), the eventual liberator of northern South America from Spanish control, was born in Venezuela but profoundly influenced by the culture of peninsular Spain and the European Enlightenment. He visited Spain in 1799, and traveled to Paris to witness Napoleon’s coronation as emperor in 1804. Bolívar aspired to bring the values of the Enlightenment, and particularly the notions of liberty and popular sovereignty, to his homeland. Having declared an independent Venezuela in 1812, he was driven into exile in British Jamaica after with the landing of a Spanish expeditionary force in 1815. In 1816, he returned with a military force and assumed the presidency of “Gran Colombia” in 1822. The following letter is renowned for its expression of Bolívar’s ambitions, at a time when the outcome of “liberation” from Spain seemed uncertain.
Selected Writings of Bolivar, trans. Lewis Bertrand (New York: Colonial, 1951), as edited in: http://faculty.smu.edu/bakewell/BAKEWELL/texts/jamaica-letter.html.
Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), known to his contemporaries as “the Incorruptible,” remains one of the most controversial figures of the French Revolution. To his enemies, he was viewed as the Devil incarnate; to the Parisian masses of 1793, he was seen as the unwavering champion of freedom and equality. Under his leadership, the French Revolution entered its radical phase (1792–1794), when as many as 40,000 people were guillotined in order to complete what he viewed as “the war of liberty against tyranny.” In early 1794, he arrested and executed some of his former political allies, but by midyear, his own position was growing precarious within a divided Committee of Public Safety. In July, his enemies issued an arrest warrant and Robespierre was tried and guillotined the following day.
Six months prior to his death, when he was at the height of his power, Robespierre gave a speech on “The Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy” (February 1794). His speech offers a fascinating insight into Robespierre’s vision of the revolution, as well as his justification for the use of terror. It also raises some interesting questions about the meaning of the French Revolution, the use of extremism in defense of liberty, and the relationship between democracy, nationalism, and “virtue.”
The Ninth of Thermidor, by Richard Bienvenu. Oxford University Press (1970): 32–49. Copyright © 1970 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
Voltaire (the pen name of François-Marie Arouet) epitomized the Enlightenment. His Dictionnaire philosophique (Philosophical Dictionary), the first edition of which appeared in 1764, distilled his thought on philosophical matters in what he self-deprecatingly called an “alphabetical abomination.” Voltaire invariably found ways to deploy humor in the pursuit of serious moral, religious, and ethical truths, as the continued popularity of his “contes philosophiques” (philosophical tales), including Candide, Zadig, and Micromégas, attests.
In this “dictionary,” arranged alphabetically according to the entry’s title (in French), Voltaire tackled matters like atheism, fanatacism, the soul, superstition, and tolerance. His tone is always light and witty, despite the weightiness of (and the violence associated with) the subject matter. Inspired by ongoing court cases and interrogation methods, Voltaire added the following essay on the use (and, in some countries, disuse) of torture as a legal instrument to the 1769 version of the Dictionary. His satirical approach resonates today, as issues of what constitutes torture and how it ought to be applied continue to dominate our political discourse.
Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, ed. and trans. Theodore Besterman (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1972), 394–396.