There has been debate as to why the English are neglected in studies of Enlightenment. Marsak, in his ‘The Enlightenment’ presents no readings from English writers and Erick Cassirer does not help either by omitting such English thinkers as Bentham, Paine and Adam Smith from his ‘The Philosophy of the Enlightenment’.
Against this tide stands Roy Porter. He has challenged the hegemony that continental Europe had over studies of Enlightenment. Suggesting that an English Enlightenment was innately conservative, especially one occurring before the ‘traditional’ eighteenth century. Porter’s argument leads to two interesting questions: Do we associate the French with Enlightenment because of the French Revolution of 1789? Do we disassociate the English with Enlightenment because there was no uprising in the eighteenth century?
English Enlightenment thinkers were merchants and traders as well as Philosophers and so took an economically conservative stance in the 18th century. This was reflected in the conservatism of English authorship, therefore giving the impression England was less Enlightened. Traditional history sees Enlightenment as a French story and as a story of struggle against authority. Enlightenment thinkers directed English thought and science without violence; therefore there was arguably no Enlightenment in England.
But this feature did not mean the English didn’t have Enlightenment, not only this, the English Enlightenment swept its way across Europe. French Enlightenment thinkers such as Diderot were inspired by the freedoms already enjoyed by the English. As illustrated by his most famous quote ‘In England, philosophers are honoured, respected; they rise to public offices, they are buried with the kings’. This puts to shame Perry Anderson, who thought England was ‘blessed by a continental drift’. The English Enlightenment did occur, but it occurred earlier; the French one aspired to imitate what the English had already achieved.
An English Enlightenment can easily be made as what defined an Enlightened culture existed in England before the eighteenth century.
Credos of English origin were translated into the founding of the American constitution, the most obvious being the rights to pursue life, liberty and happiness, mirroring Locke’s ‘All mankind… being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions’. This constitution, carried ideals of religious toleration, constitutional property rights and liberties which all had their origins in the writings of English Enlightenment thinkers.
An enlightened culture offered religious toleration, political freedoms and pursued science with a purely empirical method as fundamentals. All these features were entrenched in English culture before their continental counterparts.
Religious toleration had its origins in the Civil War, when the Anglican Church was temporarily dethroned allowing protestant Dissenters to stray from conventional worship.
The impossibility of bringing the Dissenters back to the Anglican Church during the Restoration proved impossible and finally in 1689 through the Bill of Rights the Dissenters were guaranteed freedom of worship. Empiricism, a practise based on observation and experiment, dated back to the sixteenth century statesman Francis Bacon and culminated in Newton’s Principia of 1687, widely considered the most significant works in the history of science and the impetus for modern day physics.
Political freedoms were also guaranteed in the Bill of Rights of 1689, which limited the monarchy’s powers without Parliament’s consent in respect to the suspension of laws, levying of money and raising of a standing army. It also guaranteed that the election to parliament was free, parliaments would he held regularly and there would be freedom of speech without royal impeachment.
England had become Enlightened by the eighteenth century. It looked to the future instead of the past and studies of it have been all but non-existent due to it being unique, occurring earlier and its non association with civil strife and the existence of complacent and conservative literature in the eighteenth century, the over studied century of Enlightenment.