American Enlightenment Literature

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and extensive experience working in the business world as Director of Marketing and Business Development at a financial advice firm.

Some of the greatest ideas of the American consciousness come from the American Enlightenment period. This lesson introduces the writings of the American Enlightenment and some of its major themes.

What was the American Enlightenment?

The American Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that began the early 1700s and ended in the 1810s. During this period, the American colonies underwent a change in thought.

Society began to reject many of the Puritan ideals, of which much of the culture had been based upon until that time. Instead, the ideas and theories of the greatest thinkers of the European Enlightenment, from Bacon and Newton to Locke and Rousseau, were celebrated. Much of the literature of this period dealt with the weighty ideals that these figures devoted their writings to. As a result, literature during this period transforms a variety of genres, from speeches to pamphlets, as well as poetry and essays.

Major Speakers of the American Enlightenment

For the great literary minds of the American Enlightenment, one of the favored mediums to express their ideas was through speeches. As a result, it is no surprise that practically all of the great minds of the American Enlightenment were also gifted orators. Names like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin immediately spring to mind, as they are at once witty but also precise with their expectations for the society that should develop around them.

One orator, however, deserves special mention - Patrick Henry. While he may not be as well known as Franklin or Jefferson, his words were able to help unite the colonies - I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

Patrick Henry

Major Writers

As important as some of the speeches were during this period, a great deal of literature was still produced and distributed. Much of this was done in the form of pamphlets, which allowed ideas to be easily spread in the space of a few pages. No pamphlet writer was more famous than Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense swept the nation into a fury against British rule.

However, it wasn't just the overtly political prose pieces that were inching the country closer to independence. Poets such as John Trumball (not to be confused with painter John Trumball) denounced anyone who supported British rule.

Of course, not everything was so political. There was still a real demand for practical knowledge that was now free from Puritanical rule. For this, people needed turn no further than Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac. It was translated into dozens of languages and Franklin was able to show a level of humor that had not been demonstrated by American writers at that point in literature.

Benjamin Franklin

Constant Themes

Throughout the American Enlightenment, a number of themes could be found. Those themes are as follows:

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