Elizabeth Ochoa

The Enlightenment period was a profound era that marked a shift in society from the rule of natural law to a political system[1]. Before this transition, the law of natural order held firmly the belief that people are innately born with a moral compass guiding them to make rational decisions; it allowed people to determine for themselves what good and evil was. However, this assumption overlooked the fact that people interpret things differently, leading thinkers like John Locke to advocate for change. 

            John Locke played a key role in laying the groundwork for the Enlightenment. In his influential work, “Two Treatises on Civil Government”, he argued that protecting everyone’s natural rights required a system that safeguarded the general population[2]. This gave rise to civil society and the need for a government to uphold people’s rights. By entrusting the government with the task of protecting rights, a unified system was established to determine what was considered right or wrong, rather than leaving it to individual interpretation. 

            The Enlightenment’s influence can be seen in early American writings, such as Zephaniah Swift’s “On Crimes and Punishments” in Connecticut. Swift acknowledges the importance of preserving individuals’ private social rights while restraining disruptive acts that could harm society[3]. This aligns with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on upholding natural rights while maintaining a system to prevent malicious intentions. 

Furthermore, Swift praised the ideas of two influential Enlightenment philosophers: Montesquieu and Cesare Beccaria. Their advocacy for non-violent forms of punishment contrasted with the violent tendencies of the earlier eras. This shift led to a redefined approach to punishment, focusing on proportional consequences for crimes, aiming to reduce violent acts in favor of alternatives like imprisonment.  

As a result, the Old-Newgate Prison emerged as a place to confine and rehabilitate offenders through sentences. Marking a significant departure from the punitive practice, aligning more with the Enlightenment’s ideals of a fairer and more just society. 

The Enlightenment period played a crucial role in reshaping society’s values and institutions, leaving a lasting impact on how we approach law, government, and justice today.  

Why does it matter? 

            The Enlightenment period played a vital role in shaping today’s democratic government. It introduced the idea of a government that protects the natural rights of the majority, paving the way for a more just society. One significant outcome was the transformation of crime and punishment methods. Instead of relying on violent means like corporal punishment, the focus shifted to a more humane penal system. 

            Before the Enlightenment, society endured brutal forms of punishment, making life unbearable for individuals who committed crimes. The Enlightenment period marked a monumental step forward for crime and punishment in the United States. Not only did it lead to more proportional punishments, but it also ended the dominance of bloody and violent forms of retribution. 

            Although some view the prison system negatively today, it’s crucial to recognize its relative humanity compared to the previous violent methods of punishment. The Enlightenment’s impact on the justice system has left a lasting legacy, shaping the way we approach, and continue to critically think about crime and punishment in the modern world.


[1] “Punishment: The Enlightenment” Law Library, 2023 https://science.jrank.org/pages/10921/Punishment-Enlightenment.html

[2]  Locke, John “Two Treatise on Civil Government”, Ballantyne Press, 1884 https://www.google.com/books/edition/Two_Treatises_on_Civil_Government/zEIqAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover

[3]  Swift, Zephaniah “General Observations Respecting Crimes” in Book Fifth of A System of the Laws of the State of Connecticut, 1795 https://www.google.com/books/edition/A_System_of_the_Laws_of_the_State_of_Con/dBE4AAAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover