The late eighteenth century was a time of great change throughout the world. It was the height of the Age of Enlightenment and a "rationalistic religion" (Deism 1) called Deism. Also in this time, The Declaration of Independence was being written by the Congress of the newly claimed United States of America. During the time of the Enlightenment, nearly everything was subjected to a test of reason and nature with the hope of change and progress. With Deism, not even God was safe from at least a few tests of reason. People felt that they "were ready to shrug off the shackles of tradition and custom and participate in the progress of civilization" (Harrison 469). This is exactly what the people of America wished to do as they wrote their Declaration of Independence from a country that allowed little participation in their civilization.
One of the main principles of the Age of Enlightenment was reason. At that point, many enlightenment thinkers felt that "traditional institutions or customs should not be accepted because they have been long-lasting but rather should be examined critically and held up to the standard of reason" (Harrison 469). In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and others were careful to specify that "Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes" (Jefferson 1). They felt that if something that has stood for that long is to be changed, it should be done for very good reason. That is why a good amount of the Declaration was spent critically examining the ways of their former King through reason. In these examinations they not only state what had been done wrong, but why it was wrong.
Nature also played a strong role during the Age of Enlightenment and influenced the Declaration of Independence. In the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson mentions the "Powers of the Earth" and the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" (Jefferson 1). He explains that people must put them into use with a "decent respect of the opinions of mankind" (Jefferson 1) when previous political bonds have failed. People in the time of the Enlightenment felt that "a move to nature is a move toward wholesome vigor and freedom" (Harrison 469) which were exactly the principles that American wished to base herself upon.
Another concept strong in this time period was Deism. Deism is defined by the Dictionary of Christianity in America as a "correspondence between the rational structure of the physical universe and the rational capacity of the human mind" (Deism 1). It "focused on the glories of nature" but "assigned God to the outer reaches of the universe" (Deism 1). This form of religion is seen throughout the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson uses the "Laws of Nature and Nature's God" to justify the break from Great-Britain and claims that the truths of "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness" are all "endowed by their Creator" (Jefferson 1). Obviously Jefferson uses religion to justify many of his arguments, but tends to give God less of a role and gives nature a stronger, more evident one. Like many other people of the age, Jefferson seemed to feel that "God revealed himself in nature and through reason" (Deism 1).
The main purpose of the Declaration of independence was the Enlightenment principles of change and progress. Jefferson and many other Americans were frustrated with the ways of their former King and his lack of reason. They felt that when a long enough course of abuse was designed for their demise, it was "their right... to throw off such Government and to provide new guards for their future security" (Jefferson 1). The entire document is a demand for change. A common enlightenment thought that was shared in the Americas was that "Change... liberates individuals and should be pursued" (Harrison) and for them at least, it did liberate and it was very strongly pursued.
In this time of great change, the eighteenth century, many ideas seemed to fuel and mold each other. Two of the main ideas that greatly influenced the Declaration of Independence were the Age of Enlightenment and Deism. The religion of Deism and the Enlightenment view of Nature gave many ideas in the justification of the arguments. Jefferson and the other men favored the simplicity in the Laws of nature. Because of this, they also found security in "Nature's God" (Jefferson 1). The writers of the Declaration of Independence also relied strongly on reason. The reason for this Declaration was that they felt the King had no reason. They challenged and examined his ways through reason and created their own, new ways. They were bringing about another basic concept of the Enlightenment, change, so that they could "build for themselves a more perfect society" (Jefferson 1).