Enlightenment Ideals As Realized by Jefferson and Others

Author: Stephen Bertetti
School: T.C. Williams H.S.
Grade Level: High School
Time Estimated: 1 Block

This lesson works well with an honors class that has a background on the Enlightenment, the Declaration of Independence, and parts of the U.S. Constitution that relate to the 3/5 person rule and the first 10 amendments. During this lesson, students will use primary sources from late 18th century and early 19th century American history to judge how well Thomas Jefferson and others implemented the ideals of the Enlightenment into the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. They will finish with a discussion of whether Thomas Jefferson and others were justified with the limitations they placed on the Enlightenment ideals.


Historical Background:

From the late 17th century through to the late 18th century, European thinkers were influenced by the developments of the Scientific Revolution. These Enlightenment philosophers wanted to use the ideas from science and apply them to the world of human interaction. The Europeans borrowed from the Greeks and Romans building on their notions of democracy, equality, and freedom. In turn, American revolutionaries absorbed these Enlightenment ideas and used them as both a justification for revolution and a guide for a new republic. However, the American writers of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights did not include a great number of people in their interpretation of democracy, equality, and freedom. As one of the principle authors of the Declaration of Independence and as a participant in the forming of the new nation, Thomas Jefferson was a leading spokesman for the Enlightenment values. Besides Jefferson, other founding fathers espoused the ideals of the Enlightenment but always with their own limitations.


Major Understanding:



Students will:

  1. Read and interpret primary sources from late 18th century and early 19th century America.
  2. Identify ideas from the Enlightenment in the sources.
  3. Describe opinions and biases in the sources.
  4. Give an example from an 18th century U.S. document that reaffirms or negates the ideas presented in the primary source.
  5. Compare and contrast the opinions presented in the primary sources.
  6. Predict future conflicts that will arise from the differences that are presented.
  7. Evaluate and judge the creators of the United States as to how well they incorporated the ideals of the Enlightenment into U.S. government.


Standards of Learning:

WHII.1 The student will improve skills in historical research by;

a) identifying, analyzing, and interpreting primary and secondary sources to make generalizations about events and life in world history.


WHII.6 The student will demonstrate knowledge of changes during the eighteenth century by;

d) explaining the political and social ideas of the Enlightenment and the ways in which they influenced the founders of the United States, specifically the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States of America and the Bill of Rights.