The Impact of the Enlightenment

The Framers of the Constitution had absorbed the ideas of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Like Rousseau, the framers saw government in terms of a social contract among members of the community. A central feature of the new federal government—the separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches—was borrowed directly from Montesquieu.

The framers were also influenced by the ideas of an English legal scholar of the 1700s, William Blackstone, who shared many of Locke's ideas. Blackstone's writings greatly informed the legal ideas contained in the Constitution and a good portion of American law to the present day. For example, his famous statement that “the law holds it better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party suffer” is reflected in the Constitutional rights given to people accused of crimes.

Painting of a man with medium length grey hair, in a dark suit, seated at a desk with books.

James Madison is known as the father of the U.S. Constitution because he was instrumental in drafting the document.

A Framework of Government

The Constitution created a federal republic, with power divided between the federal, or national, government and the states. It provided for both an elected legislature and an elected president.

To prevent any branch of government from becoming too powerful, the Constitution set up a series of checks and balances. Under this system, each branch of the government has the right to monitor and limit each of the other branches.

The Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments to the Constitution, recognized the idea that citizens have basic rights that the government must protect. These included freedom of religion, speech, and the press.

It also affirmed legal ideas, such as the right to trial by jury and the principle that no one may be forced to testify against him-or herself. The Bill of Rights, like the Constitution, put Enlightenment ideas into practice.

Symbol of Freedom

From the start, the new republic was a symbol of freedom for many. The Declaration of Independence, along with the Bill of Rights, put forth the idea that there are certain rights that belong to everyone.

In 1789, most countries in Europe were ruled by hereditary absolute monarchs. The United States stood out as a beacon to Europeans who took up the cry for liberty and freedom.

Demands for written constitutions and a limit to royal power would bring great changes to Europe by the decades ahead. Revolutionaries in Latin America were also inspired by the example of the United States.

Under the Constitution, citizens enjoy many rights, but they also have many responsibilities. They are expected to vote, sit on juries, and keep informed on topics of local and national interest.

Photo of a sheet of paper with script which begins with the phrase we the people, and includes a section article 1.

The U.S. Constitution, shown here, set up a series of checks and balances in which each branch of government can limit the powers of the other branches.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments